Ontario has committed $2 million to rescue the Experimental Lakes Area mothballed by the federal government, a small step forward in what's been a year-long mess of negotiations, stop-gap measures and vague promises to save the world-class freshwater research centre.
In a letter released Monday, Ontario's Natural Resources Minister David Orazietti for the first time put a dollar-figure on his government's commitment, pledging $2 million a year to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, which has been tapped to take over the ELA.
Ontario's contribution should cover the bulk of the ELA's annual operating costs.
But a formal deal between Ontario, Manitoba, the IISD and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is proving elusive.
Time is running out. The old agreement that allowed the DFO to operate the research centre in Ontario expires in a month. Staff and scientists have been warned about a gap in operations.
"I am confident that we will have an agreement soon allowing this important scientific facility to continue its work," wrote Orazietti.
Manitoba funds the IISD to the tune of $1 million a year, and some or all of that cash is expected to be diverted to funding research on the lakes.
The provinces and the IISD have struggled to rescue the ELA since Ottawa announced it was closing the research area, laying off dozens of staff.
"Let's remember why we're in this mess," said Diane Orihel, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta and the founder of the Coalition to Save ELA. "We're in this mess because of the Canadian government. Fourteen months later, we're still here and the future of the ELA is still up in the air."
In the meantime, many federal staff stationed at the lakes have been in limbo, facing layoffs or waiting to see if their positions will be transferred to the IISD. Some have taken other federal government jobs, or retired or quit.
"The team is falling apart, which is really tragic," said Orihel. "The amount of knowledge on how to do these types of experiments is really rare."
Limited research on mostly long-term studies has continued over the summer with a skeleton crew of scientists, but new projects, including one on nanoparticles used in everyday items to kill bacteria, have been shelved.
In response to questions by Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard on Monday in the Manitoba legislature, Premier Greg Selinger said he spoke to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne about the experimental lakes at last week's premiers' gathering in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Both reaffirmed their commitment to keeping the research station alive.
"We're trying to find a way forward," said Selinger. "We need a federal partner as well."
One hurdle involves liability. The old lease agreement between Ottawa and Ontario specifies the DFO must return the area to Ontario in pristine condition. That means hundreds of buildings, weirs and other pieces of infrastructure must be removed.
How much of that infrastructure the IISD wants to take over and how much Ottawa must pay to clean up is still being negotiated.
Last week, the remaining staff at the ELA were assigned the task of taking an inventory of the infrastructure to figure out what can be destroyed and what should be kept.