The federal government could be on the hook for millions of dollars when it stops funding the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario — enough money to run the facility for years to come.

The potential cost of shutting the ELA came out at an Ottawa news conference of scientists calling on the government to save the one-of-a-kind research facility.

"In 1996, site remediation would have cost $25 million, and that was when it was a bunch of Atco trailers," explained Diane Orihel, leader of the Save the ELA coalition and a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta.

'I think the real problem is we have a bunch of people running science in the country who don't even know what science is.'—David Schindler, University of Alberta water scientist

Since then, the government has constructed nearly 40,000 sq. ft. of buildings and a $1-million fish lab. Orihel estimated all this investment would at least double the cost of returning the site to its natural state.

The ELA comprises a series of 58 small lakes near Ontario's border with Manitoba. It was created in 1968 as a natural outdoor laboratory to study the effects of contaminants on "entire lake ecosystems." Research from the ELA contributed to understanding the effects of acid rain and was instrumental in helping craft the 1991 Air Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S.

The ELA is unique in the world.

"The Experimental Lakes Area, in my opinion, is the best-known freshwater research facility on the planet, bar none. Some countries have large particle accelerators. We have the Experimental Lakes Area," argued John Smol, an award-winning biologist at Queen's University.

"We talk a lot about what has been gained by having ELA. I think it is equally important to talk about what is lost if we don't continue with ELA," added Smol.

Long-term water monitoring

At the top of Smol's list is the 44-year continuous set of detailed, long-term monitoring data. It contributes to the understanding of metal contamination, acidification and climate change on bodies of fresh water. The information is used by researchers across Canada and around the world.

The government is hoping to find an outside organization that will run the facility in its stead.

"Depending on how discussions go with research agents that may want to take over the work at the site, remediation may not be necessary," Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield's spokeswoman Erin Filliter wrote to CBC News.

That wasn't good enough for David Schindler, the University of Alberta's celebrated water scientist.

"I think the real problem is we have a bunch of people running science in the country who don't even know what science is," he said. According to Schindler, most of the funding for research comes from universities, but the continuous monitoring is done by government staff. That can't be done by rotating groups of different graduate students.

Orihel isn't convinced by the government's explanation for cutting ELA's funding — that the work done there no longer fits Ottawa's mandate.

"This government is choosing to ignore the science that we generate. Such as how climate change is affecting fresh waters or how industrial chemicals accumulate in fish. Closing ELA means throwing out the exact type of science Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada require to fulfil their responsibilities."