Deal would see scientists return to Experimental Lakes Area

A deal has been reached between the federal government and a policy institute that would see scientists return to the Experimental Lakes Area this summer.

Winnipeg-based policy institute has framework of deal with government

Scientists set up a raft with one of a series of micro-meterological stations on a lake in the Experimental Lakes Area in this undated photo. University researchers had argued important work would be lost if Ottawa didn't reverse a decision to end the facility's funding. (Experimental Lakes Area handout/Canadian Press)

A deal has been reached between the federal government and a policy institute that would see scientists return to the Experimental Lakes Area this summer.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) issued a joint news release Thursday afternoon, saying the framework of an agreement has been reached to allow IISD to operate the area near Kenora in northwestern Ontario.

The federal government had closed the area at the beginning of April, saying it would save around $2 million a year.

That cast doubt over what would happen to ongoing scientific experiments across its 58 lakes, even after the Ontario government said late last month that it would fund work in the area — it was unclear when work could begin again.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said Thursday it will run sampling programs over the summer that will help long-term data collecting stay current.

Water quality work has been done in the area since 1968.

At the time of the announcement, Dr. David Schindler of the University of Alberta said what makes the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) unique is that it’s far enough from cities and industry that it’s a natural living lab for freshwater research.

Work done at the research area by Schindler led to international changes in cleaning product ingredients after it was discovered phosphates in some of them were causing lakes to turn green with algae.

7 months of negotiations

The news release said the federal government and IISD had been negotiating over the ELA for seven months.

"I believe that IISD is well-suited to operate the Experimental Lakes Area with excellent capacity, expertise and international reputation to take on this important work," Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield said in the news release.

"We are pleased to have worked with IISD to get to this point and look forward to working with them towards a final agreement."

"The [Experimental Lakes Area] complements IISD's work in freshwater management and, if the [ELA] does come to IISD, we would ensure it remains an independent, world-class research facility that continues to produce leading-edge freshwater ecosystems science in the public domain and in the public interest," said Scott Vaughan, CEO and president of IISD in the release.

The Winnipeg-based policy institute had previously said it was interested in being part of the Experimental Lakes Area’s long-term plan.

NDP MP Megan Leslie said following Thursday's question period that the Conservatives got caught "short-handed" when they cut the funding and had no plan for afterward.

"I actually found it quite remarkable that they stood up in the House and claimed victory, acting like the big saviours of ELA," she said.

"Sure I'm happy they didn't stand in the way of this transferral from the feds to the provinces, but I don't think it's something they should be taking credit for."

Issues that need to be solved include ironing out responsibilities, transferring property and sharing data.

"We understand that IISD will continue discussions with the province, the landowner, on an agreement to operate the site going forward and we hope these discussions are successful," said Kenora MP Greg Rickford.