A $25,000 feasibility study scheduled for completion in the spring might provide a solution for Swan Lake’s low water levels, and lead to reinvigorated traditional use as well as recreational-use development.
The lake is only about a metre deep, and this state of affairs is worrisome for Swan Lake First Nation and its neighbours. The goal of the study is to determine how to "improve the fishery on the lake to provide long-term benefits to local people, as well as tourism and recreation within the area."
"Swan Lake is very low. In the last couple of years, because of the lack of snow and we had cold temperatures — not so much this year — it’s been frozen to the bottom," said Swan Lake First Nation‘s director of operations, Desmond Gould.
Five or six years ago, Gould could go out on the lake and catch four or five fish. That’s no longer the case. Fish are scarce, perhaps non-existent. Fishers are just not getting any bites.
Cliff Greenfield, manager for the Pembina Valley Conservation District, said Swan Lake is a typical shallow prairie lake that has some challenges in terms of water quality, but it does have a large upstream watershed area, "so normally there is lots of water flushing through the system."
"In summer there can be large algae blooms during hot weather periods. In winter the lake can freeze to the bottom, so the fish have to move out of there and find deeper spots to overwinter. This past year it started out really dry, but in the fall the watershed received a lot of rain and so the river ran at very high levels and is still running today," he said.
Greenfield explained that the study would provide pros and cons to various means of lake stabilization.
"It kind of seems like a no-brainer to add a bit of water to it, to make it a more usable lake. Swan Lake in particular, they rely on their natural resources for some of their livelihood, hunting and that sort of thing."
The lake, located to the south of Swan Lake First Nation and 136 kilometres southeast of Brandon, is one of three lakes known as the tri-lakes, along with Pelican Lake and Rock Lake.
Pelican Lake has a dam and channels to regulate its levels. That work took place in the early 1990s. Rock Lake also has a dam, dating back to the early 1940s. A feasibility study to further improve Rock Lake is also being done.
A 1979 document from the Swan Lake First Nation, which proposes to use the lake as a recreation area much like Pelican and Rock lakes, states, "At present the lake has been allowed to deteriorate to the point where it is nothing more than a body of water with weeds, grass, sludge and the fish and game have long gone."
The document notes that as early as the 1950s, the First Nation wanted to raise the lake with a dam system and develop recreational areas.
Finally, it states: "At present, Swan Lake is dying. … The Band Council of the Swan Lake Reserve are prepared to proceed with a feasibility study and a subsequent complete study for the development of Swan Lake."
The First Nation had also garnered support from game and fish organizations, the municipalities of Lorne and Louise, the communities of Pilot Mound, Swan Lake, Crystal City and Manitou.
"This support has not always been readily available," stated the band council of the day.
That support continues to this day. The following organizations funded the feasibility study: Enbridge, by way of a grant through the Pembina Valley Watershed District (formerly Pembina Valley Conservation District), the Municipality of Lorne, Municipality of Louise, Lorne Game and Fish, Mari-Gyle Game and Fish, as well as Swan Lake First Nation.
The First Nation’s land manager, Eric Cameron, said they are waiting for the results.
"I guess we’ll have to start meeting with the province."
He’s hopeful they can finally move forward with a solution to raise the water.
The feasibility study is a key step to move into an environmental review should work on the lake prove viable.
Michèle LeTourneau, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun