OTTAWA — The future of the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area is more certain after the federal government announced it has an agreement in principle with a new operator for the facility.
Almost a year after Ottawa first announced it planned to stop funding the ELA after 45 years, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans signed an agreement Thursday with the Winnipeg-based environmental think-tank the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
"It’s great news," said IISD head Scott Vaughan.
The ELA is a series of 58 lakes near Kenora, Ont., used by scientists since 1968 to conduct freshwater research on whole bodies of water. It has been a program of the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but last May Ottawa announced it would not be funding it past the end of March 2013.
Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said repeatedly over the last year the government would be happy to transfer it to a new operator but that the program no longer fits with the government’s mandate.
The IISD and Ottawa have been in negotiations about the ELA since last fall, urged on by scientists from within and outside the program who did not want to see it die. The government has been under intense political and scientific pressure to save the ELA.
No other facility in the world allows for freshwater research on whole bodies of water. The ELA experiments have driven public policy on issues such as acid rain, mercury, hydro dams and phosphorus in soap. It was responsible for work that helped save Lake Erie and it’s hoped research there will help save Lake Winnipeg, too.
Recently, the Ontario government stepped up with unstated financial support for ELA operations, but only as negotiations between the IISD and Ottawa continued. Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger has pledged resources if Ottawa remains at the table.
The latest step doesn’t transfer the program yet, but outlines what needs to be decided before a transfer can take place, including who pays for what, remediation of the site before the transfer, ongoing operating costs and data sharing.
Meanwhile, Ottawa will provide support for some work this summer so scientists with active research at the ELA site in northwestern Ontario can continue their work uninterrupted.
Until now, scientists were told they wouldn’t have access to the facility this year unless a new operator was found, putting in jeopardy multiyear experiments, including one that has studied the impact of fertilizing one lake for more than 40 years.
Allowing access will save that work. Experiments have not yet begun this year because of the late spring.
More than a dozen scientists work for the ELA through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Winnipeg, and have been waiting for a year to know their future.
They were told Thursday of the latest development, although none yet know where they will end up working.
Ashfield and Vaughan said some of them may end up working for the IISD, although the details are still to be worked out. Ashfield said others will likely be offered other positions within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans if they’re interested.
Diane Orihel, a PhD student who launched the group Save ELA, said she was pleased with the agreement but was irked Ashfield and the government were trying to take credit for saving the ELA when it was their decision that led to the predicament in the first place.
"It sounds like the government finally buckled after all the pressure we’ve been putting on it," said Orihel.