OTTAWA -- Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is trying to play the role of the white knight for Canada's Experimental Lakes Area but the program isn't ready to reopen for business just yet.
Wynne announced Wednesday Ontario is working with Ottawa, Manitoba and the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development to keep the world-renowned research facility operating.
"It's a critical endeavour and provides invaluable knowledge," said Wynne.
There is no deal yet but the negotiations would see Ontario take over some of the $2-million annual operating funding and the IISD take over the day-to-day operations from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. There are still matters being discussed, such as who will pay for what, including capital, said Wynne.
"We are prepared to put money into this," she said.
The ELA is a series of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario near Kenora. The federal government has run the program since 1968 and it is the only facility in the world where freshwater research is done on whole bodies of water to test the impact of everything from acid rain and mercury to phosphates, hydro dams and climate change.
ELA research has been credited with helping determine how to clean up Lake Erie, changing government policy on phosphates in soaps, influencing Ontario's pollution-reduction strategies and focusing industry on issues related to excess hormones entering water bodies.
Ottawa has operated the program under an agreement with Ontario, which actually owns the land.
In May 2012, Ottawa announced it would cease funding the ELA as of March 31, 2013. Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield repeatedly said the program no longer fit with the government's priorities and that it was seeking someone to take it over. The site has been locked up since April 1.
Pressure on Ottawa to rethink the decision has been immense, coming from scientists around the globe and politicians at the federal, provincial and municipal level in Canada.
The 17 scientists, biologists and other researchers who work at the ELA out of offices in Winnipeg have not been laid off but have been basically "wringing their hands and waiting," said David Schindler, founder and former director of the ELA.
"It's a relief to see someone intervene," said Schindler, now a professor at the University of Alberta. "Ontario is showing a lot more sense than our federal government."
Schindler said the IISD will do a much better job of running the ELA than "a bunch of bean-counters who wouldn't know a fish if it slapped them in the face" from the federal government.
But so far, Ontario is the only party willing to put money on the table.
"It's important to us as a government that believes in science, that believes in evidence, to have this continue," said Wynne. When asked if she was implying Ottawa does not believe in science, she said you'd have to ask them.
Ashfield would give no new information Wednesday, acknowledging discussions with the IISD, saying it would be inappropriate to comment as the talks are ongoing.
In an agreement with Ontario that expires this fall, Ottawa would be on the hook to remediate the site to its original condition if the program ceases to run. The cost of that is estimated to be anywhere from $5 million to as much as $50 million.
Manitoba believes the only way to save the program is if Ottawa is still at the table with some funding.
"We know that it's not only important research for Lake Winnipeg, it's important research for all of Canada," said Premier Greg Selinger.
He refused to commit dollars from Manitoba at this point, saying both Manitoba and Ontario are still seeking "a substantial commitment" from Ottawa. He wouldn't speculate on what the two provinces would do if Ottawa continues to refuse to fund the ELA.
IISD president Scott Vaughan said in a press release he looks forward to developing a plan for the IISD to take over the operations of the program.
"The ELA is a natural fit with IISD, building on the track record of our Water Innovation Centre," he said. "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."
Save ELA spokeswoman Britt Hall said if the talks can conclude soon, it should mean no research is interrupted. Because of the late spring, no experiments are likely to begin until at least mid-May.
But Diane Orihel, a PhD student who has done years of research at ELA and founded the group Save ELA, was careful not to jump for joy yet.
"This is wonderful news, but we need to be careful not to overreact. The announcement is a big step forward, but the battle for ELA is far from over." She said Ottawa now needs to do its part to make this work.
-- with files from Larry Kusch
A global effort
SINCE May 2012, the following groups have advocated on behalf of the ELA:
Citizens United for a Sustainable Planet;
The Center for Ecological Research;
DIVERSITAS of the Western Pacific and Asia;
The Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists;
The Japanese Society of Limnology;
The Global Lake Temperature Collaboration;
The Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association;
The Council of Canadians;
The East Asian Federation of Ecological Societies;
The Australian Society for Limnology;
The Ecological Society of Japan;
The Science Directors of the Canadian Rivers Institute (CRI);
The Entomological Society of Canada;
The Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography;
The Ecological Society of America;
The International Society of Limnology;
The Society of Canadian Limnologists;
The Society for Freshwater Sciences;
The Entomological Society of Manitoba;
The Ontario Chapter of the American Fisheries Society;
The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry;
The Canadian Aquatic Resources Section of the American Fisheries Society;
The International Association for Great Lakes Research;
The Atlantic Geoscience Society;
The National Council of Women of Canada;
The Water Institute;
The University of Waterloo Graduate Students Association;
Israel Oceanographic & Limnological Research, Inc.;
The North American Lake Management Society;
The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
-- Mia Rabson