The Harper government was never able to muster a coherent explanation for its decision in 2012 to axe the Experimental Lakes Area's $2-million operating budget. Now, rescued by the Ontario government's five-year funding deal, the world-class freshwater research lab east of Kenora passes to the International Institute of Sustainable Development. ELA's long-term survival rests on drawing money from new, non-governmental entities.
It is new, but not entirely untrodden, ground for ELA, a whole-ecosystem research operation encompassing 58 lakes in the Canadian shield. Over its 40-year history, it has engaged private partners in past projects, research that quantified the damage of sulfur (acid rain) and phosphorus (additives in soap) to lakes and fish. But to replace direct government grants, its new managers must broaden ELA's appeal, draw in partners such as educational institutions, non-governmental and private entities to support it indefinitely.
That mission falls to an ELA with about half the former staff. The Winnipeg-based IISD has set up a non-profit corporation to embody the new ELA, to operate with about 10 salaried people. Some of the former employees moved into new jobs or "packaged off" will return.
A deal struck Tuesday capped an agreement on liability -- the financial responsibility for any unforeseen fallout of research on the lakes. Ottawa and Ontario carry the risk for past works and the IISD assumes it for future research. This was the stumbling block to earlier resolution of ownership.
The immediate job is to get the lab in the woods operating this spring, with work continuing in long-running research and attracting new projects and partners. Manitoba, which benefits disproportionately from ELA with its year-round headquarters in Winnipeg, is tossing it $150,000 a year for six years.
Two years of uncertainty and stop-gap management at the ELA have been damaging, disruptive for both the staff and the work, but also halting partnerships on irreplaceable, whole-ecosystem research on new environmental threats. In a better world, merit and common sense would prevail over short-term political considerations -- cutting ELA's lifeblood was not critical to getting Ottawa back to surplus. Canadians are indebted to the Liberal government in Ontario, and to the tireless efforts of IISD and former ELA staff for the resurrection of an unequalled environmental research gem.