Deal signed to keep experimental lakes alive

A lake part of the Experimental Lakes Area Reservoir Project is pictured in an undated photo.
A lake part of the Experimental Lakes Area Reservoir Project is pictured in an undated photo. Experimental Lakes Area handout / The Canadian Press

TORONTO – A world-famous research area in northwestern Ontario will remain open thanks to agreements between the provincial and federal governments and the Manitoba-based group that runs the facility.

The Experimental Lakes Area was in danger of closing after the federal government said in 2012 that it was considering closing the area to save $2 million per year.

The facility, located in a remote region about 50 kilometres southeast of Kenora, has been used since 1968 for scientific freshwater studies.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Winnipeg-based research organization that has been running the facility, began negotiations with the federal and Ontario governments in late 2012 to try to keep it open.

Under agreements reached among the three parties, management of the 58-lake facility will transfer from Fisheries and Oceans Canada to Ontario, effective immediately.

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The institute says pledges of financial support from the federal, Ontario and Manitoba governments, among others, will enable the not-for-profit non-governmental organization to continue to operate the facility.

“This opens a fresh, new chapter in the life of the ELA and the promise of many important and exciting research possibilities ahead of us,” said Scott Vaughan, president and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

“What real-world research can tell us about the human impact on the natural environment is indispensable to putting the human relationship with this planet on a sustainable footing.”

The transfer of the facility required separate deals between Ontario and the IISD, between Canada and the IISD, and a trilateral Canada-Ontario-IISD agreement to support an open data policy for scientific research. The three agreements involving IISD were preceded by two bilateral Canada-Ontario pacts.

One of the only whole-lake laboratories available in the world, the Experimental Lake Area has attracted scientists studying the impacts of stressors and pollutants from human activity and industrial development on freshwater lakes, streams and surrounding watersheds.

That research has helped lead to environmental legislation in Canada and worldwide. In the 1970s research at the facility identified that acid rain could lead to the death of freshwater fish.

Other findings have contributed to the phase-out of harmful phosphorus additives in cleaning products and proposed policies to reduce mercury levels found in fish. Ontario has committed up to $2 million per year to keep the facility open.

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“Our government has stepped up to provide the financial support necessary to keep this world-class facility operational, while ensuring the environment is protected,” said David Orazietti, Ontario’s minister of natural resources.

The Council of Canadians applauded the announcement but said the Harper government continues to abdicate its responsibility for fresh water protection.

“The Ontario and Manitoba governments are the real heroes for saving the ELA in a time when the Harper government is clawing back fresh water research and environmental legislation, muzzling our scientists and downloading its responsibilities to provincial governments,” said council chairwoman Maude Barlow.

The council’s water campaigner Emma Lui said the group is grateful that the research at the ELA will continue.

“Understanding the human impacts on our watersheds will have untold benefits for generations to come,” Lui said.

Evidence for Democracy, a group that advocates for the transparent use of science and evidence in public policy and government decision-making, said it’s pleased that a final agreement has been reached that will allow research at the Experimental Lakes Area to continue.

“We hope that the new agreement will allow ELA to continue to produce the world-class research that provides critical information on the impacts of human activities on aquatic ecosystems,” said group founder Scott Findlay.