Effects of seasonal and interannual varibility in water isotopes (δ2H, δ18O) on estimates of water balance in a chain of seven prairie lakes

H. A. Haig*, N. M. Hayes, G. L. Simpson, Y. Yi, B. Wissel, K. R. Hodder, P. R. Leavitt

*Corresponding author for this work

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Stable isotopes of hydrogen (δ2H) and oxygen (δ18O) provide important quantitative measures of lake hydrology and water balance, particularly in lakes where monitoring of fluxes is incomplete. However, little is known of the relative effects of seasonal variation in water isotopes on estimates of lake hydrology, particularly over decadal scales. To address this gap, we measured water isotopes bi-weekly May-September during 2003–2016 in seven riverine lakes within the 52,000 km2 Qu'Appelle River drainage basin of the Canadian Prairies. Analyses revealed that within-year variation in δ18O values routinely exceeded that among years, reflecting rapid changes in water source, particularly in lakes with water residence times <1 year. Isotopic variation was greatest during spring following snowmelt, except in large deep lakes which exhibited limited differences among seasons or years. In contrast, large hydrological events (e.g., 1-in-140-year flood in 2011) homogenized isotopic values, even among riverine lakes separated by over 150 km, and exerted particularly strong legacy effects on large lakes. Overall, study lakes exhibited a strongly positive moisture balance (evaporation < inflow), despite regional precipitation deficits of 30 cm yr−1, with greater reliance on rainfall (vs. snow) and possibly evaporation in downstream lakes within more humid regions. We conclude that seasonal samples of water isotopes are required to characterize the hydrology of shallow lakes, or those with unknown reliance on snowmelt waters, as well as to better quantify lake susceptibility to climate variability.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100069
JournalJournal of Hydrology X
Early online date10 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank members of the Limnology Laboratory for assistance with data collection since 2003. We also thank Curtis Hallborg and Trent Wurtz of the Saskatchewan Water Security Agency for data on surface flow in the Qu’Appelle River drainage basin, and area capacity-curves. We thank two reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. This work was supported by the NSERC Canada Discovery Grants program, Canada Research Chairs, Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Province of Saskatchewan, and the University of Regina. We acknowledge that the study lakes are located on Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 territory and thank the First Nations of Saskatchewan for sharing and protecting the water resources. This is a contribution of the Qu’Appelle Valley long-term ecological research program (QU-LTER).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors

Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • High resolution
  • Hydrology
  • Long-term monitoring
  • Prairie lakes
  • Qu'Appelle
  • Scales of variability
  • Water balance
  • Water isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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