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Closing ELA penny-wise, pound foolish

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EDMONTON -- In media interviews following the recently announced cuts to the Experimental Lakes Area, two reporters said that they thought the project had been dead for some time, because they had heard little about the work in recent years. This is not the case.

Rather, the silence from ELA has been because of increasing pressure on government scientists not to speak publicly about their work, a tragedy in my view. The success of a democracy must rely heavily on an informed electorate, not on politically-filtered propaganda to support political agendas. Here are some of the more important studies since I left in 1989:

In the 1990s, new ELA experiments focused on the emission of greenhouse gases from newly constructed reservoirs and related changes to the mercury cycle. Several small-scale reservoirs became whole ecosystem laboratories. As a result, we now know that reservoirs contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, but not as much as burning fossil fuels does.

Reservoirs also invariably contaminate key fisheries with mercury, rendering fish inedible for decades.

Concerns about the effects of estrogen-like chemicals in water led to addition of a very small amount of estogenic hormone being added to a small ELA lake. Within two years, most of the male fish were feminized, and reproduction ceased. When hormone additions ceased, reproduction resumed and the fish recovered. The concentrations of hormone added were similar to those found in waters downstream of sewage outfalls, and one wonders about their impacts on other species, including homo sapiens. We need to understand the ecosystem scale impacts of hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals, but meager funding has not allowed such work to continue at ELA.

Next was METAALICUS. A group of the top mercury scientists in North America, concerned about steadily increasing consumption advisories for eating fish, launched a watershed-scale experiment at ELA. Tiny amounts of mercury containing different stable isotope signatures were used to separate inputs to lakes directly from the atmosphere, via runoff from wetlands, and from forested areas. The amounts added were not enough to contribute to mercury pollution, but were easily detected by ultra-sensitive mass spectrometers. Results showed that mercury falling directly on a lake from the atmosphere appeared in fish within months. Wetlands slowly yielded mercury, one per cent a year or so of what they received. Upland forests yielded still less (though release of mercury when forests burn is still a concern). The results emphasize the importance of controlling mercury emissions to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuel and incinerating wastes.

Finally, despite the widespread success of controlling phosphorus to reduce algal blooms, based on early work at ELA, there has recently been pressure for policies to decrease inputs of nitrogen, in hope of more rapid recovery. The financial stakes are high. Removing both phosphorus and nitrogen from Winnipeg's effluent as proposed by some to protect Lake Winnipeg would cost $400 million. Controlling phosphorus alone would cost less than $100 million. Controlling inputs of both elements to the huge Baltic Sea as currently proposed by the EU would cost 3.1 billion euros, controlling phosphorus alone only two hundred million to hundred million.

We have examined the effect of decreasing nitrogen in ELA's Lake 227. We found that reducing nitrogen inputs does not improve the recovery of lakes, and may actually aggravate bloom forming species which thrive when phosphorus is high and nitrogen low.

In short, the results of ELA experiments can have enormous economic implications. Our politicians must realize that science can influence prosperity in other ways than simply inventing gadgets to sell.

Many important policy questions require addressing at ecosystem scales. Nanotechnology promises many profitable possibilities. But there are troubling questions related to the penetration of biological membranes by tiny toxic particles. Funded by new Strategic Grant, a nano silver experiment at ELA is planned for next year. If ELA closes, that experiment is jeopardized. Many new organic compounds have PCB-like properties. Some thought to be harmless can decompose to toxic chemicals, requiring further investigation at ecosystem scales. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons have been identified as potentially harmful at small concentrations in the oil sands. It might make sense to examine the effects in a smaller, more controlled setting than in the Athabasca River.

Only experiments at realistic whole lake scales can directly address important water policy questions. Wrong decisions can mean wasting billions of dollars on policies that do not work, or developments where profits are nullified by expensive mitigation later.

In ELA, Canada owns what one science reporter has called "the world's only ecological supercollider." For a country which worries constantly about its "world class" image, why would we want to eliminate such a unique and important facility?


David Schindler was ELA's first director. He is the Killam memorial professor of ecology at the University of Alberta. He has received dozens of national and international awards for his work at ELA, including the first Stockholm Water Prize and the Gerhard Herzberg Gold Medal for Science and Engineering.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 28, 2012 A10

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