A unique freshwater research station in northwestern Ontario that the federal government planned to shut down has officially been saved.

Research at the Experimental Lakes Area will continue in the 2014 field season under an agreement that transfers control of the facility from the federal government to the Ontario government and the Winnipeg-based non-profit International Institute for Sustainable Development, the groups announced Tuesday.

"This is great news," said Diane Orihel, a scientist who conducted research on aquatic contaminants at the research station for more than a decade and founded the Coalition to Save the ELA.

"ELA will actually be bigger and better than it was [when it was] being strangled under the government."

'I am pleased that this important work will be able to continue, even though the federal government has withdrawn.' - Jim Bradley, Ontario Environment Minister

The Ontario government bills the research station as "the only freshwater research facility of its kind in the world," since it provides scientific access to entire lakes. Ontario is providing $2 million a year and the Manitoba government is kicking in $900,000 over six years through the institute, which is focused on sustainable development policy.


The Experimental Lakes Area consists of 58 lakes near Kenora in northwestern Ontario. (Experimental Lakes Area/Canadian Press)

"This opens a fresh, new chapter in the life of the ELA and the promise of many important and exciting research possibilities ahead of us,” said Scott Vaughan, president and chief executive of IISD.

The Experimental Lakes Area consists of 58 lakes near Kenora in northwestern Ontario, where research into topics ranging from acid rain to fish farming has been underway since the late 1960s.

The federal government announced in 2012 that it planned to shut down the research station in March 2013 as part of budget cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Scientists lobbied to keep the research station open, arguing that it was one of Canada's most important aquatic research areas and known around the world.

Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley said in a statement: "The Experimental Lakes Area has produced breakthrough research that sounded the alarm on acid rain, algae blooms in lakes and other environmental challenges. I am pleased that this important work will be able to continue, even though the federal government has withdrawn."

New activities, research

The new deal means there is the opportunity to expand the types of activities that take place at the Experimental Lakes Area, said the IISD in a statement.

Previously, the research station only conducted studies that fit the mandate of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and related to freshwater fish. Now, researchers will be able to study a broader range of topics, such as clean water technology, and conduct activities such as training, workshop and field courses that could benefit both scientists and members of local communities, the IISD said.

The Ontario government said this summer that studies at the facilities will include research on:

  • The ecological effects of nanomaterials such as the silver nanoparticles used as odour-fighting and antibacterial agents in some clothing and other products.
  • Changes in mercury levels in the lakes, following the closure of Ontario's coal-fired energy stations.

However, in an opinion piece in the Globe and Mail, Orihel and David Schindler, founding director of the ELA, said the research station still faces some challenges.

"The first hurdle will be to rebuild the project’s world-class, but now-defunct, science team," they wrote. "Then, money to fund scientific experiments must be found."

They noted that ELA scientists will no longer be able to compete directly for federal government funds or apply directly to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the federal granting agency that funds research at universities.

Orihel told CBC News that the research station is now looking to recruit scientists and seek long-term funding.