The 5 Largest Man-Made Lakes in British Columbia

Written by Tina Page
Published: November 27, 2023
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British Columbia claims some of the most beautiful natural real estate in all of Canada. The western-most province in the country, British Columbia has seven national parks and more than 241,500 lakes and reservoirs. With 2 million lakes of all sizes, the entire country of Canada has more lakes than all other countries combined. Even with its abundance of natural lakes, however, creating man-made lakes has been an important method for providing electricity, irrigation, recreation, and flood management. Let’s take a look at the five largest man-made lakes in British Columbia. 

Man-Made Lakes 

Hoover Dam

The Hoover Dam, spanning the Arizona-Nevada border about 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas, is the most-visited dam in the world.

©Doug Michaels/iStock via Getty Images

Man-made lakes, also known as reservoirs, require the creation of a dam. Although beavers have been building dams for millions of years, the earliest evidence we have that humans created a reservoir is the remains of the Jawa Dam constructed around 3,000 BCE in modern-day Jordan. Early civilizations could only use those first artificial lakes, however, for irrigation purposes. 

Ever since the discovery of using hydropower to generate electricity in 1882, humans have been building mega-dams around the world to power civilization. Since then, new reservoirs around the globe have provided numerous benefits along with issues of environmental degradation and displacing residents living in the path of rising water. The five largest man-made lakes in British Columbia are no exception. 

Discover the 5 largest manmade lakes in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Measuring the Five Largest Man-Made Lakes in British Columbia

Lakes come in all shapes, sizes, depths, and shoreline lengths. A lake with a small surface area could be deep enough to hold more water than another lake that looks much bigger from the outside. Each lake has its own unique elements meaning there are many metrics from which to rank bodies of water. For this article, we use surface area per square mile (mi²) to judge the size of British Columbia’s reservoirs. This metric offers the most practical recognizable attribute. It is also the most functional in terms of use by most wildlife and humans. 

This article journeys from the glacier-sliced Canadian Rockies in the east to the Great Bear Rainforest on the Pacific coast to discover the five largest man-made lakes in British Columbia. 

1. Williston Lake — 680 mi²

Causeway road over Williston Lake in beautiful British Columbia

Williston Lake is the seventh largest man-made lake by volume in the world.

©Pictureguy/Shutterstock.com

We start our travels in the Peace River Alaska Highway region of northern British Columbia at Williston Lake, the largest lake in the province. Not only is Williston Lake the biggest lake in British Columbia, but it also ranks as the seventh-largest man-made lake in the world by volume with a capacity of holding 74 billion cubic meters of water. 

Geography and Wildlife

Nestled in the basin of the upper Peace River, which backs into the Rocky Mountain Trench, Williston Lake is fed by a variety of rivers and smaller streams. The reservoir runs 155 miles north-south and 93 miles east-west. Bordered by the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Cassiar Mountains to the west, the Peace River region is treasured for its wide-open spaces and largely untouched wilderness. 

Amid the forests surrounding the reservoir, the town of Mackenzie stands out. With a population of more than 3,000, the town provides the only driving access to Williston Lake. Mackenzie is located on Highway 39, which is off Highway 97 North. Visitors to the lake can find hotel and camping options, as well as unlimited hiking and mountain biking opportunities in the area. In fact, Mackenzie’s newly developed trail network system affords mountain biking enthusiasts hours of trail riding adventures.

The ecological richness of the area around Williston Lake provides the resources that many of North America’s remaining majestic wildlife need to thrive. Whitehead eagle, osprey, beaver, Wapiti elk, whitetail deer, mule deer, coyotes, wolves, moose, black bears, and grizzly bears abound in the untamed bounty of British Columbia’s northern interior. 

W.A.C. Bennet Dam

Named after the minister of lands, forests, and water resources at the time, Ray Gillis Williston, the W.A.C. Bennet Dam was built on the Peace River in 1967. The hydroelectric dam is one of the world’s highest earth-fill dams at 610 feet high. Construction of the dam cost $750 million. 

The dam’s powerhouse has a capacity of 2,730 megawatts, making it a significant hydroelectric generator. The Gordon M. Shrum Generation Station supplies electricity for industrial and residential use in British Columbia, Alberta, and the western United States. 

Despite being an engineering success, Bennet Dam severely impacted the area’s ecology and native inhabitants. As Williston Lake filled, 350,000 acres of pristine forest land was flooded. The rising water damaged the plant and wildlife biodiversity in the area. Along with displacing wildlife, the floodwaters forced local First Nations inhabitants to move.

Recreation

Some of the most popular summer activities on the lake are swimming, boating, water skiing, and fishing. Lakeside activities include camping, hiking, and mountain biking on the newly developed trail system in Mackenzie. Rainbow trout, lake trout, kokanee, dolly varden, and northern pike are all caught in the lake. Williston Lake freezes in the winter so ice fishing is a popular seasonal activity.

2. Nechako Reservoir — 351 mi²

Wild white sturgeon caught and released on the Columbia River, near Astoria, Oregon

Indigenous groups claim the dam that created the Nechako Reservoir is partially responsible for extirpating

sturgeon

from their area of the Columbia River.

©christiannafzger/iStock via Getty Images

Our next stop is the second largest man-made lake in British Columbia, the Nechako Reservoir. The lake has a surface area of 351 mi². It was formed in 1957 by the construction of the Kenny Dam on the Nechako River and nine smaller dams, which inundated a chain of lakes and rivers. Nechako Reservoir is about 60 miles southwest of Vanderhoof in central British Columbia.

Geography and Wildlife

The Nechako Reservoir comprises six lakes and their associated or connecting rivers, reaches, and arms. The lakes are the Tahtsa, Ootsa, Whitesail, Knewstubb, Natalkuz, and Tetachuck. Stretching more than 125 miles from the Kenney Dam to the Coast Mountains, the Nechako Reservoir deposits water into Rio Tinto Alcan’s Kemano hydro-generating station.  

Tweedsmuir North Provincial Park and Entiako Provincial Park border the amalgam of lakes that make up the Nechako Reservoir. The Nechako Canyon Protected Area includes the four-mile-long Grand Canyon of the Nechako, which was created as the Nechako River cut through volcanic rock. Since the construction of the Kenny Dam, the area, which borders the dam, is now a dry riverbed.  

Fish found in the lake include rainbow trout, kokanee, dolly varden, and char. Like much of the land in British Columbia, the rugged landscape supports healthy populations of impressive wildlife. Moose, black bears, grizzly bears, bison, and many other animals take advantage of the reservoir’s remote location. 

Kenny Dam

At the time of its construction in 1952, the Kenney Dam was the biggest hydroelectric project ever financed by a private company. At 328 feet high, the dam is a clay and rock embankment spanning the Nechako Canyon. The Aluminum Company of Canada spent $500 million blasting through mountains and glacier ice to construct the dam. Kenny Dam was built to power an aluminum factory completed at the same time 48 miles away on the coast near Kitimat. The aluminum smelter was the largest aluminum plant in the world at the time.

Damming free-flowing rivers and blasting through glaciers came at an environmental and human cost. The dam effectively reversed the river’s natural flow, sending two-thirds of its volume to the Pacific Ocean. In the years following the dam’s construction, gravel riverbeds favored by spawning salmon and white sturgeon filled with sand and silt when the Nechako Reservoir released small amounts of water.

As the water backed up against the Kenney Dam, it flooded homesteads, indigenous village sites, and forests, leaving the landscape to rot and litter the reservoir. Saik’uz and Stellat’en First Nations have fought Rio Tinto Alcan, the former Aluminum Company of Canada, for more than a decade. The groups allege the dam decimated fish populations in the surrounding rivers.

Along with impacting indigenous people’s fishing rights, the flooding caused by the dam displaced the Cheslatta Nation peoples. Given only two weeks’ notice to resettle, their lands, villages, cultural and spiritual sites were destroyed by the rising water.

Recreation

The area around the Nechako Reservoir is rich in parks and wilderness areas, making for unlimited opportunities for hiking, camping, and stumbling into adventures. Boating on the reservoir’s various reaches can be difficult due to the unpredictable nature of the weather in the region. High winds come up suddenly, creating waves higher than six feet. Also, access to the shoreline can be difficult, although there are several boat launches. The lake freezes in the winter, so ice fishing is a popular activity

3. Arrow Lakes Reservoir — 203 mi²

Grizzly bear walking in a river in Bella Coola British Columbia Canada

Grizzly bears are a common site in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia.

©iStock.com/psahota

Our third destination takes us southeast to the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. Here, the pristine waters of the Arrow Lakes Reservoir lap against the rocky headlands and steep cliffs that hem in the third-largest man-made lake in the province. With a surface area of 203 mi², the reservoir is known as one of the top boating lakes in British Columbia.

Geography and Wildlife

Arrow Lakes Reservoir was originally two lakes 14 miles apart. The conjoined waters shimmer against the backdrop of the Monashee Mountains to the west and Selkirk Mountains to the east. Divided into the Upper Arrow Lake and Lower Arrow Lake, the reservoir is a widening of the Columbia River. The communities of Upper Arrow Lake, Lower Arrow Lake, Edgewood, Fauquier, Burton, Nakusp, New Denver, and Silverton make up the Arrow Lakes region.

The region supports a variety of agriculture thanks to its abundance of arable land and rich soil. Bears, eagles, osprey, and trumpeter swans all visit the shores of the Arrow Lakes. Species such as bull trout, rainbow trout, sockeye salmon, burbot, and northern pikeminnow call the lake home.  

Keenleyside Dam

The Hugh Keenleyside Dam was completed in 1968 as part of the Columbia River Treaty. It is 171 feet high and has a crest length of 2,800 feet, made of earth and concrete. The dam controls a drainage area of 14,100 square miles.

One of the most controversial dams built in southern British Columbia, the Keenleyside Dam displaced about 2,000 people and flooded farms, villages, and thriving agricultural land. The construction of the dam, however, ended the annual threat of flood damage in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. Since 2002, the Arrow Lakes Generating Station immediately downstream of the dam has provided electricity for BC Hydro

Recreation

Only a four-hour drive from Spokane, WA, the Arrow Lakes region is a less-crowded destination for families and nature lovers looking for the perfect vacation spot. The area boasts hot springs, lakeshore hikes, mountain bike trails, vineyards, paddling, museums, galleries, a ghost town, and fishing. 

There are five provincial parks in the Arrow Lakes region including McDonald Creek, Rosebery, Summit Lake, Syringa, and Valhalla. Camping opportunities abound all along the Arrow Lakes shores. Lakeside camping spots at Syringa Provincial Park on the shores of Lower Arrow Lake delight visitors with its cascading waterfalls. It’s also where the world’s largest Kokanee salmon was caught.

4. Kinbasket Lake — 166 mi²

Above, Aerial View, Air Vehicle, British Columbia, Canada

Kinbasket Lake was named after an indigenous Shuswap chief before the small natural lake became a large reservoir.

©Nikolas_jkd/ via Getty Images

Traveling by car about five hours north up the Columbia River from Arrow Lakes Reservoir brings us to the fourth-largest man-made lake in British Columbia, Kinbasket Lake. With a surface area of 166 mi², the generously sized reservoir is named after a chief of the Shuswap people. Its signature turquoise green waters are a scenic treat to visitors coming to enjoy the many activities the area has to offer.

Geography and Wildlife

Kinbasket Lake’s picture-perfect scenery is framed by a backdrop of the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky, Monashee, and Cariboo Mountains. The area is rich in national parks as well. Glacier National Park and Jasper National Park sandwich the reservoir’s two reaches. Columbia Reach is in the south and Canoe Reach is the northern reach. 

It would be impossible for a wildlife enthusiast to come away from a visit to Kinbasket Lake disappointed. The area is a haven for deer, elk, moose, caribou, mountain sheep, mountain goat, gray wolf, cougar, grizzly bear, and wolverine. Fish in the reservoir include bull trout, ling cod, rainbow, kokanee, and whitefish. 

Mica Dam

One of the largest earthfill dams in the world, Mica Dam was completed in 1973 as part of the Columbia River Treaty. The dam is 801 feet high and has a crest length of 4,740 feet. This makes it the tallest dam in Canada and the second tallest in North America. Its powerhouse has an installed capacity of 1,805 megawatts supplying electricity to British Columbia. It created Kinbasket Lake, which has a storage capacity of 74 billion cubic feet.

Like most of the dams on our journey, it didn’t come without controversy. As the Columbia River backed up against the Mica Dam, massive cedars that had been knocked down but never cleared choked the lake. Dust storms are another hazard created by the dam. When the water levels are at their lowest in spring, dust sweeps up the valley. The rising and falling of Kinbasket Lake also destroyed the hot springs infrastructure that existed in the area up until 1973. 

Recreation

Kinbasket Lake is a haven for outdoor pleasure seekers. In the warmer months, the lake offers paddling, canoeing, swimming, fishing, and boating. Nearby Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Rockies, is a popular destination for hikers eager to see the area’s waterfalls, glacial lakes, wildflowers, and wildlife. 

5. Lake Revelstoke — 44.5 mi²

lake, sky, travel, nature, forest, beautiful, canada, british columbia

Lake Revelstoke has the distinction of being the lake surrounded by the world’s only inland temperate rainforest.

©Michelle La/Shutterstock.com

We end our journey at Lake Revelstoke after traveling a little less than halfway back to Arrow Lakes Reservoir down the Columbia River. The reservoir is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive due south from our last stop at Kinbasket Lake. Lake Revelstoke is a hidden gem tucked away in the heart of the world’s only inland temperate rainforest surrounded by glacier-capped peaks in every direction.

Geography and Wildlife

Hemmed in by the Monashee and Selkirk Mountain ranges of southeastern British Columbia, Lake Revelstoke extends more than 77 miles along the Columbia River canyon. The man-made lake is situated north of the community of Revelstoke in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. Its western shore is populated by secret beaches and hidden coves that can only be accessed by water, while Highway 23 provides access to the shoreline on the east side of the reservoir.

Fishing is popular on Lake Revelstoke with the most-caught species being rainbow trout, kokanee salmon, dolly varden, and burbot. Wildlife in the area includes bighorn sheep, elk, caribou, grizzly bears, cougars, and eagles.

Revelstoke Dam

Lake Revelstoke was created in 1983 at the completion of Revelstoke Dam. It is a combined earth-fill and gravity dam operated by BC Hydro. Spanning the Columbia River, the dam is 574 feet tall with a power station with an installed capacity of 2,480 megawatts. The dam was responsible for flooding the infamous Dalles des Morts, or “Death Rapids,” just north of the dam’s location.

Recreation

Another secret natural treasure, Lake Revelstoke is a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. There is no shortage of campgrounds, scenic hiking trails, beautiful beaches, and nearby provincial parks to keep visitors busy.

RankMan-Made LakeSurface Area in Square Miles (mi²)
#1Williston Lake680 mi²
#2Nechako Reservoir351 mi²
#3Arrow Lakes Reservoir203 mi²
#4Kinbasket Lake166 mi²
#5Lake Revelstoke44.5 mi²

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Alena Charykova/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Tina Page is a journalist and teacher from Los Angeles with more than 20 years of experience writing for newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. She runs an animal rescue that's changed the lives of all kinds of creatures. From dogs and cats to hawks, skunks, racoons, opossums, sea gulls, and lizards, no animal is left behind. Along with her many animals, Tina is a homeschool mom to three kids that are just as passionate about helping animals. If they are not rescuing animals, they are surfing at their local beach or hiking in nature.

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