OTTAWA -- A retired scientist who spent most of his career researching at the Experimental Lakes Area is being awarded the highest honour in his field in Canada this week.
Raymond Hesslein, who worked as a freshwater scientist at the ELA for more than three decades until his retirement in 2009, said he was surprised to hear he had been chosen to receive the Rigler Award.
"After 31/2 years of retirement I wasn't expecting that," he said. "I'm certainly very honoured."
Hesslein is the eighth ELA scientist to receive the Rigler Award since its inception in 1984. No other organization has merited as many winners.
But he may be the last, with the ELA in limbo as Ottawa plans to stop funding it at the end of March.
Hesslein, in transit to Windsor, Ont., to receive the award at the annual conference of the Society of Canadian Limnologists, said the award should be further proof of why the government should not back away from the ELA.
"I think the fact that many people from ELA have won the award underlines how significant the work done at ELA is," said Hesslein.
The ELA was established more than four decades ago to allow scientists to conduct freshwater research on whole lakes, rather than on small water samples. It consists of 58 small lakes and their drainage basins in northwestern Ontario near Kenora. The land is owned by the Ontario government and leased to the federal government under an agreement that requires Ottawa to clean up the site entirely if the program is ever closed.
Research done at the ELA has led to major discoveries and public-policy shifts affecting acid rain, phosphate additions to soaps, mercury and hydroelectric dams. It has helped clean up major bodies of water such as Lake Erie and its research is helping determine how to address the algal blooms choking Lake Winnipeg.
The closure of the ELA was first announced last May. The government claims the program no longer aligns with its mandate and would prefer to shift the research dollars elsewhere.
The government initially hoped some organization would step in to take over the program.
The major stumbling blocks are funds and the liability for the land. Although the ELA's budget is $2 million, that does not take into account the additional help it receives from using federal facilities at the University of Manitoba where it is based, or federal services such as human resources and information technology.
The bigger issue is the liability, as whomever is responsible for the land must be liable for cleaning up the lakes under an agreement with the Ontario government. Ottawa also needs Ontario's permission to transfer that liability, which is estimated to be at least $20 million.
Maya Gorham, spokeswoman for Ontario's minister of natural resources, said last month the department had not received a proposal from Ottawa regarding a different operator for the ELA.