Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Votes lure funding to Lake Winnipeg

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OTTAWA -- Ah, the August long weekend.

A beautiful midsummer respite that conjures up visions of lolling on the dock at the cottage with crystal-blue waters lapping at the shores.

It is most often in the summer Manitobans really come to appreciate our abundance of fresh water.

It is also when we are most often reminded of the human-imposed problems we have brought to bear on one of our precious resources.

Cottagers on Lake Winnipeg are bemoaning the pea-soup waters on their beaches, making the lake a whole lot harder to enjoy. Those algae blooms are growing more massive each year and are caused by contaminants from our soaps, our food, our toilets and much, much more.

Riding in on his white horse last week was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, bearing with him the promise of nearly $18 million over the next four years to help return Lake Winnipeg to its former glory.

The money will be spent over the next four years and includes $12 million for scientific research, $3.7 million for community stewardship programs and $2 million for collaboration on watershed governance. Which is a fancy way of saying getting all those who pollute the lake to come together to figure out how to save it.

What Harper did not produce from his saddlebags was a reprieve for the Experimental Lakes Area. His government plans to cut off funding for the program next year, ending more than four decades of internationally acclaimed research to help save our waterways from ourselves.

It seems incongruent for a government to make an $18-million promise to clean up the water, but not be able to find the $2 million a year to continue funding existing research, which is doing some of the same things.

Clearly, there is money available for scientific research on water. It's just not available for the ELA.

Selkirk-Interlake MP James Bezan, whose riding includes much of Lake Winnipeg, said recently the government believes the research should be done closer to where the problems actually lie. So if cleaning up Lake Winnipeg is the problem, why not direct the money towards research directly on the lake.

It sounds reasonable except the kinds of experiments done at the ELA cannot be done on Lake Winnipeg.

The ELA uses mostly self-contained lakes -- 58 of them near Kenora, Ont., -- to conduct whole-ecosystem research. It is the only program of its kind in the world to do so. Since 1968, scientists have purposely polluted these lakes with phosphorus, hormones, antibiotics and you name it, noting the impact the substances have on the water and its natural residents.

Then they clean up the problems they created, helping solve both the impact question and the question of how we can fix it.

That knowledge is then transferred to large bodies of water. It was ELA research on the phosphorus contents of soaps that led to the reduction and outright removal of phosphorus from most commercial products and helped save Lake Erie from algae blooms choking the life out of it.

It is not entirely clear why the government is so against the ELA.

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield has only said the project no longer fits with the government's priorities. But here is the government saying cleaning up Lake Winnipeg is a priority.

Perhaps the Experimental Lakes Area -- until it was cut off in budget cuts recently -- was an out-of-the-way project most Canadians had never heard of while Lake Winnipeg, in its 24,500-square-kilometre glory, is the world's 10th-largest lake and one of Manitoba's best-known attractions. It generates $100 million in tourism each year and supports a $50-million commercial fishery.

Throwing money at Lake Winnipeg is a political win.

Throwing money at the ELA might benefit more lakes in the long-term, but it isn't going to grab many votes.

It's not to say the $18 million coming Lake Winnipeg's way won't help. But it's probably not going far out on a limb to think scientists who do the research are a little more knowledgeable about the best way to save our lakes than politicians.

And scientists from around the globe -- from the United States, Israel, Europe and Asia -- are all saying the Experimental Lakes Area is too precious to drown.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 7, 2012 B3

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