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Ontario Throws Lifeline to Long-Running Canadian Research Project

24 April 2013 6:00 pm
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Coalition to Save ELA

Lake effect. A campaign to avoid a funding cutoff for Canada's experimental lakes program appears to be paying off.

Canada's renowned freshwater research facility, the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), will be able to remain open this year with money from the province of Ontario. But that funding, announced today by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, may be only a temporary lifeline.

The facility has conducted ecosystems research at the 58 lakes in a remote, northwestern area of the province near the city of Kenora since 1968. Last year, the Canadian government axed its $2 million annual appropriation, gave notice that it planned to start tearing down structures in September, shifted its staff of 16 to the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, and hired security guards to keep scientists off the site after 31 March.

Wynne's announcement gives ELA a reprieve. But the provincial government has not decided how much money it will free up for operating costs, says Laurel Broten, Ontario's minister of intergovernmental affairs. Negotiations are ongoing with the federal government and the province of Manitoba "to find the best arrangement."

Roughly $600,000 is needed to operate core ELA facilities annually, while an additional $1.4 million is needed to cover the cost of salaries for ELA staff members that carry out scientific projects or conduct the routine work of taking water samples and monitoring water flows.

Although the federal government has shown no inclination to become involved in any effort to save ELA, Broten says that she has had "very productive" talks with Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield. "The conversations are active, are current, and we understand the importance of moving quickly" to ensure that the "one of a kind" facility can continue to undertake world class research, she adds.

It's hoped that ELA can ultimately survive under the umbrella management of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). The nonpartisan charitable organization has been attempting to broker some form of long-term financial arrangement that will allow for ELA's continued existence.

One key issue to be resolved is whether the federal government will retain responsibility for restoring the lakes to their natural condition once ELA's doors are permanently closed, says Carol Kelly, a retired professor of microbiology at the University of Manitoba. Kelly worked at the ELA for 30 years and is now part of a lobbying group, the Coalition to Save ELA. She surmises that it'll take both a waiver of liability and a large endowment for ELA to survive over the long haul.

IISD President Scott Vaughan was en route from China and unavailable for comment. But he said in a press release, "We look forward to working with the province and the federal government on a plan that enables IISD to take over the operations of this extraordinary facility."

It remains unclear whether ELA operations this season will be restored to 2012 levels or whether it's too late to proceed with all of the experiments that had been planned for this year. Many of the projects were led by Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists, and Kelly says that their fate hinges on "what work DFO allows them to do this summer."

At a minimum, it's expected that the Ontario reprieve will allow academic scientists to conduct their own studies, says Jules Blais, president of the Canadian Society of Canadian Limnologists and a professor of biology at the University of Ottawa. He says that body of work includes a study on the effects of nanosilver on ecosystems, the fate of mercury from coal-fired power plants, the effects of aquaculture, and the effects of phosphorous and nitrogen on lakes.