Budget cuts claim famed freshwater research facility

A famous research facility in Ontario that pioneered investigations into acid rain is the latest victim of federal budget cuts.

A famous research facility in Ontario that pioneered investigations into acid rain is the latest victim of federal budget cuts.

The Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario is being closed at end of the fiscal year, March 2013.

Sources told CBC News that staff were told on Thursday that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans would no longer run the facility and all staff associated with the  ELA will receive 'affected letters', and no new experiments will be initiated.

Lake 239, one of 58 lakes that make up the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario, is seen in a webcam photo taken May 17. Funding for the research facility will end next March, the federal government has announced. (experimentallakesarea.ca)

The Environmental Lakes Area was started in 1968. It's a series of 58 pristine lakes that have been used for ground breaking research.

This is where scientists, led by Dr. David Schindler, discovered that phosphates in detergents and household products were causing lakes to turn green with algae. It led to international changes in ingredients for those products.

The ELA is also internationally known for research into everything from acid rain to climate change to fish farming — essentially, all the ways that human activity can affect freshwater systems.

But staff were told that the government believes that this kind of research is "better suited to universities" and they'll be asked if they want to take over the work, a plan confirmed by a DFO spokeswoman.

"The department will no longer conduct research that requires whole lake or whole ecosystem manipulation [and] as such the research program at the Experimental Lakes Area will be ceased and the facility will be closed," Melanie Carkner said in an email to CBC News. 

"The Department will continue to conduct freshwater research in various locations across Canada in response to departmental needs," Carkner said.

The decision to close the facility was announced along with 400 job cuts at Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard intended to save a total of $79.3 million. The ELA cuts will affect 13 full-time staff at the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, but the site also supported seasonal work by up to 50 other scientists who used it for research.

Decision called 'shortsighted'

Schindler, who is an internationally renowned freshwater scientist, said he's not surprised by the government's decision.

"It's obvious in the changes to the Fisheries Act and the CEAA (Canadian Environmental Assessment Act) they are hellbent on doing whatever they can that, in their feeble minds, will save them some money. But they are not consulting anybody as to how they do it."

Schindler, who is now based at the University of Alberta, said what makes the ELA so valuable is that the pristine lakes are far away enough from cities and industry that they are a living natural laboratory for freshwater research, much better than doing small scale work in a laboratory.

"It's probably the only Canadian environmental research that's well-known internationally."

Prof. John Smol, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change at Queen's University, called the decision "shortsighted" and said it is unrealistic to assume universities will take over the work.

"They're being cut too," he said.

Smol, who has used the Experimental Lakes Area for his own work into the early history of lakes, said the decision is part of a series of cuts the Conservative government has made to government-led research since it came to power. "If you stop doing research to identify the problems, then you don't have to deal with them."

Schindler notes that in the last 40 years Fisheries and Oceans has threatened to close the ELA a number of times, under both Liberal and Conservative governments.

"It's the fifth time they've threatened to close it. Each time there's been a huge public outcry."

But he said he is not so hopeful that will happen this time, given the current government's record.

"They're obviously closing the site because they don't want to be pestered by science."

Map of the Experimental Lakes Area region in northwestern Ontario