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Ontario steps in to help save ELA

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OTTAWA -- The Ontario government is stepping in with cash to save the Experimental Lakes Area.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said her government is negotiating with Ottawa, Manitoba and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, to get the "critical" scientific research program back on its feet.

"We are committed to finding a solution," she said. "I think this is an important gem. I don't believe provincially, regionally, nationally or internationally we can afford to let it go."

ELA, a series of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario near Kenora, has run scientific experiments on fresh water for more than four decades. It is a unique facility in the world as the only one of its kind where research is done on whole bodies of water.

The federal government has run ELA since the inception, through an agreement with Ontario to use the land which is owned by Ontario.

However a year ago Ottawa announced it was getting out and pulling its $2 million annual operating funding.

Federal fisheries minister Keith Ashfield repeatedly said ELA no longer fit with Ottawa's priorities, and said the government would look for a new partner to take over the program.

However no partner was found before the closing date of March 31, and the facility has not operated since then.

Wynne wouldn't say how much money Ontario is willing to put in, saying there is the $2 million annual operating fund as well as some capital required, and that Ontario is in discussions right now with Canada, Manitoba and the IISD about that.

She said "you'll have to ask the federal government" whether it doesn't believe in the scientific knowledge the site can provide but she said Ontario does.

"It's important to us, a government that believes in science and believes in evidence, to have this continue."

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger refused to say whether Manitoba would be prepared to commit funding to preserve the ELA.

Selinger confirmed that Manitoba is working with the Ontario government to save the environmental but he said both provinces are still seeking "a substantial commitment" from Ottawa.

"We’ll work together to find a way to preserve the research because it’s made a big difference on places like Lake Winnipeg. And that kind of research will help us to save Lake Winnipeg and other lakes in Manitoba," Selinger said.

He refused to speculate on what the two provinces would do if Ottawa continues to refuse to fund ELA.

"We want Ottawa to be there discussing it with Ontario and Manitoba," he said. "We know that it’s not only important research for Lake Winnipeg, it’s important research for all of Canada."

David Schindler, who founded ELA and directed it for more than two decades, was breathing a sigh of relief this morning.

"It's some good news for a change," he said. "It's great to see this level of support."

Schindler has been highly critical of the federal government for abandoning ELA.

"Ontario is showing a lot more sense than our federal government," he said.

There are 17 scientists, biologists and other researchers whose jobs are tied directly to ELA. They all work in Winnipeg, and do their experiments at ELA.

Since the end of March they have been unable to go to the site or work on their experiments. Schindler said they have been "mostly wringing their hands and waiting."

He said it looks as if Ontario is going to tear up its agreement with the federal government and hand over the reins to IISD to run the program. Schindler said that is going to be an improvement to have the program run by a research and scientific organization rather than "bean counters who wouldn't know a fish if it slapped them in the face" in the federal government.

IISD President Scott Vaughan confirmed in a statement the Winnipeg-based organization is working on a plan with Ontario and Canada to take over operations of ELA.

Vaughan was in China on business when Ontario made its announcement but put out a statement in a press release before boarding a plane to return to Winnipeg to deal with the news.

"The ELA is a natural fit with IISD, building on the track record of our Water Innovation Centre," said Vaughan in a press release.

"If the ELA does come to IISD, we would work with other stakeholders to ensure it remains an independent, world-class research facility that continues to produce leading-edge freshwater ecosystems science in the public domain and in the public interest."

Britt Hall, University of Regina professor and spokeswoman for Save ELA, said there are a lot of relieved people.

"We're thrilled Ontario has stepped up to the plate and picked up the federal government's slack," said Hall.

She said if the negotiations can play out quickly now, there may not even be much of an interruption in the experiments done on the lakes because of the late spring.

Usually Hall said experiments don't start on the lakes until May 1 but this year it will be even later since there is still ice on the lakes.

"While this might mean people will scramble and prepare to get out there, there will be no interruption in the science."

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 9:19 AM CDT: adds video, quote from ELA founder, corrects typo

9:46 AM: adds quote from Save ELA spokeswoman

11:20 AM: adds photo, adds more info on Manitoba's involvement

2:09 PM: Adds quote from Premier Selinger, IISD president

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