Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's best to benefit all lakes

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled all the way to Lake Winnipeg Thursday to announce his government would spend $18 million to help clean it up. Fine and good, but he's mistaken if he believes he can make up for the loss of one important program by starting another.

Mr. Harper's Conservatives need to take a second look at their plan to close the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area research station near Kenora, a move that will save Ottawa about $3 million a year.

The ELA fell victim to a round of budget cuts that affected most government departments, but the rationale -- that its work wasn't a core responsibility of the Fisheries and Oceans Department -- was short-sighted and counterproductive.

Conservative MP James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake) has said "research is best served by working on exactly where the problem lies" -- Lake Winnipeg, in other words -- but his logic is flawed.

Mr. Bezan, for example, does not appear to know the ELA's work benefited every Manitoba lake, even though the research was located in another province.

Canada is a land of lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands -- Manitoba alone has 100,000 lakes -- but the idea that the country has an abundant supply of clean drinking water is a myth. Much of it, like Lake Winnipeg, is challenged by various forms of pollution, bacteria and toxic chemicals.

As such, Canadians, who consume more water per capita than any other nation, need to be leaders in the field of water research. The issue is not merely about reliable drinking water, but also the effects of pollution on climate change and aquatic life.

The ELA was established nearly 50 years ago to study the algal blooms that were polluting Lake Erie. Those early experiments helped develop an understanding of algal growth, which led to an improvement in the water quality in Lake Erie and other lakes around the world. Lake Winnipeg, too, has benefited from the research.

If the Conservative government believed federal taxpayers were being unfairly saddled with the modest cost of running the research station and the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, it should have launched a process to develop a new funding model for the work. At the very least, the government should have done more research to determine the value of the ELA before abruptly announcing its closure.

The federal commitment to Lake Winnipeg is important, but it's only one lake in a nation that has not treated its water supplies like a valuable resource. The work of the ELA is necessary to establish the security of Canada's water, which is still the best argument for funding its work.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 3, 2012 A12

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