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Floodplains are among the most productive and biologically diverse freshwater ecosystems on earth. The exchange of nutrients and biota that occurs within these systems during seasonal inundation is essential in maintaining floodplain and river health. Anthropogenic structures, such as weirs, channels, and dams, have altered the natural flood hydrology of floodplain systems minimizing the frequency, strength and duration of flood events. This reduction ultimately leads to the isolation of important floodplain habitat, such as off-channel lakes, from the main channel, decreasing connectivity. Although some studies have examined the productivity of off-channel floodplain lakes in relation to connectivity, most are limited to tropical or highly degraded systems. Northern floodplains are not as well understood, with most of the research limited to the spring, summer, and fall seasons, when waterbodies are free of ice. With research limited to ice free seasons, there is not a full understanding of the year-round processes that occur within these off-channel lake habitats. This knowledge is crucial as the winter season is often when conditions within these habitats are at their most extreme. Such conditions prevent many fish species from permanent settlement; however, no research has been attempted to understand fish presence within these habitats during the winter season. In tropical systems, hypoxia-tolerant species and juveniles utilize these habitats as refuge from intolerant predators, so such habitat may be used similarly in more northern systems. The purpose of this research was to understand the connectivity, limnology and suitability as fish habitat of off-channel floodplain lakes in the Saskatchewan River Delta (SRD), SK, during winter months. I determined the degree of connectivity to the main channel for 26 individual lakes within the SRD by two modern methods: remote sensing imagery, and stable isotopes (δ18O, δ2H). Both of these techniques proved effective at determining connectivity of individual lakes and showed good agreement, with lakes arranged into five connectivity categories using remote sensing imagery. Winter limnological conditions within these lakes were significantly influenced by their degree of connectivity, with lakes that were more connected having characteristics similar to that of the river, with higher levels of dissolved oxygen (DO), nitrates (NO3-NO2), pH, and lower levels of nutrients (TN,TP). Lakes that were less connected were characterized by low levels of DO and nutrients, and high levels of ammonia/ammonium (NH3-NH4), conditions that are not favourable for the survival of many fish species. Some of the more hypoxia-tolerant species found within the SRD appear, however, to use these habitats in the winter. This was supported by detection of fish presence using environmental DNA; five fish species were detected in many of the 26 lakes sampled, but only in lakes with NH3-NH4 levels below 1.77 mg/L and volumes greater than 178000 m3. Together, these analyses suggest the influence of a spring/summer flood pulse on limnology is not limited to the months following a flood event, but rather extends well into the ice-cover season. This knowledge is critical as it points to controls on key processes (e.g. nutrient cycling, provision of fish habitat) during the period when lake conditions are most severe. As a result of human induced climate change, and from increased water demands for agriculture and hydropower, the natural flood pulse is expected to further decrease in size and frequency in large river-wetlands such as the SRD. This will reduce the connection between the floodplain and the main channel, with profound impacts on the SRD ecosystem as a whole. Lakes that currently experience frequent inundation will likely have conditions characteristic of infrequently flooded lakes, with low DO and nutrients and high NH3-NH4. Lakes which currently experience infrequent inundation will likely dry up completely due to decreased water renewal.



floodplain, delta, stable isotopes, environmental dna, connectivity



Master of Environment and Sustainability (M.E.S.)


School of Environment and Sustainability


Environment and Sustainability


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