Ottawa extends funding for Experimental Lakes but reduces annual cash contribution

Ottawa has extended its funding — but has reduced its annual cash commitment — for the Experimental Lakes Area, the freshwater-science facility encompassing dozens of lakes in northwestern Ontario.

4-year, $4M deal for long-term environmental monitoring at NW Ontario facility

Water-column enclosures known as mesocosms are used to conduct research into the environmental effects of selenium on Lake 239 in the Experimental Lakes Area. The northwestern Ontario scientific facility will receive $4M in federal funding over the next four years. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Ottawa has extended its funding — but has reduced its annual cash commitment — for the Experimental Lakes Area, the freshwater-science facility encompassing dozens of lakes in northwestern Ontario.

Kenora MP Bob Nault and Montreal-area MP David Lametti, a parliamentary secretary to the federal science minister, visited the ELA field station on Wednesday to extend a federal commitment to fund the 50-year-old research facility, which is operated by the International Institute of Sustainable Development, a Winnipeg-based non-profit organization.

The new federal cash replaces a two-year-old funding deal but actually reduces the Trudeau government's commitment to the facility. Ottawa plans to spend $1 million a year over the next four years on the ELA, after contributing $1.1 million a year in 2016 and 2017.

The new money is earmarked for long-term environmental monitoring that allows scientists to continue gathering baseline data about water chemistry, climate and aquatic life in the sprawling outdoor laboratory.

"It's huge for us," said Vince Palace, chief scientist at the ELA. "Without that database, without that baseline data of year-to-year variability — chemically, physically, biologically — we can't really make any conclusions about the various manipulations that we have.

"That long-term data set is the biggest commodity we have in terms of attracting other researchers."

Founded in 1968 by the federal government, the ELA encompasses hundreds of small lakes scattered about a sprawling rectangle of Crown land about 75 kilometres east of Kenora.

ELA scientists manipulate entire lakes over the course of years or even decades for the sake of freshwater science. 

Although they have permission to conduct experiments on 58 of these lakes, they typically manipulate only three to five in any given year. Other bodies of water serve as control lakes or are recovering from previous experiments.

In previous years, ELA scientists have demonstrated how phosphates, acid rain and mercury affect lakes. This summer, scientists have added small quantities of diluted bitumen and conventional crude to ELA bodies of water to simulate the effects of oil spills.

Other researchers have placed selenium in water enclosures in order to study how quickly the naturally occurring element, which is released into the environment in large quantities due to mining activity, is taken up by fish, invertebrates and plankton.

As recently as five years ago, there was next to no science taking place at the ELA. In 2012, the former Conservative government announced plans to shut down the field station and the research area, which was administered at the time by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Outrage within the scientific community led Ottawa in 2014 to transfer the ELA to Ontario, which in turn handed over the research area to the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Experimental Lakes Area executive director Matt McCandless, Kenora MP Bob Nault and Montreal-area MP David Lametti, in suits at right, address media at the ELA field station on Wednesday. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

The Liberal government continues to use this episode as a battering ram against the Conservatives, now in opposition, despite the drop in federal funding this year for the ELA.

"I was sick and tired of the way science was being treated and the way scientists were being treated," Lametti told a gathering of ELA researchers on Wednesday, claiming his government has reversed a Conservative policy. 

The ELA operates on a $4.5-million annual budget. The Ontario government provides $2 million a year under a deal that will expire in March 2019.

Nault said he expects Ontario's new Progressive Conservative government to continue funding the facility, even though he concedes he has not spoken to his counterparts at Queen's Park.

"We have a provincial member of parliament who is very active and involved and interested in this site and wants it to continue," said Nault, referring to PC Kenora-Rainy River MPP Greg Rickford.

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government indirectly supports the ELA through an annual $1-million contribution to the International Institute for Sustainable Development.