Experimental lakes research site to remain open

Ontario has found common ground with the federal government and Manitoba to keep a world-famous experimental research area open in the northwestern part of the province, Premier Kathleen Wynne says.

Ontario to provide support for world-famous project

Scientists set-up a raft with one of a series of micro-meterological stations. Ontario, Manitoba and the federal government have struck a deal to maintain the world-famous Experimental Lakes Project. (Experimental Lakes Area, Handout/Canadian Press )

Work will continue at a world-renowned freshwater research facility in northern Ontario following an agreement involving the province, Manitoba and the federal government.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne revealed Wednesday the province will provide funding to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) near Kenora, calling the decades-old facility "an important gem" and an "important scientific endeavour."

"I don’t believe either provincially, regionally or nationally or internationally we can afford to let it go," said Wynne.

Ottawa announced last year that it was closing the area to save $2 million annually. Provincial officials say that figure represents federal spending on research projects, and the operating costs are $600,000 annually.

The federal Conservatives said it wouldn't be operated as a federal facility as of March 31. The facility is administered by the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg.

The ELA has conducted research since 1968 on 58 lakes in northern Ontario, studying the effects of acid rain, mercury contamination and other environmental issues. 

The ELA has covered "almost all of the water quality problems we have to deal with," said John Smol, a biology professor at Queen’s University, who began working at the site in the early 1990s.

"We've learned why you have to remove phosphorous from detergents, why fish die when acid is added to lakes," he told CBC News.

The move also brought a cheer from environmentalists.

"We thought the ELA was an endangered species until Premier Wynne stepped up," Dan McDermott, director of the Ontario chapter of Sierra Club Canada, said in a statement.

'Pledges and promises'

Diane Orihel, a scientist who founded the Coalition to Save the ELA, said while Wednesday's announcement is great news, the fight to protect the facility is not over.

"These are pledges and promises," she said.

"It's wonderful that Ontario has stepped up to the plate, but what this really does is it puts pressure on the federal government to step up to the plate to do their part."

Orihel said it's not clear yet if scientists will be able to work at the ELA this summer.

The amount of money Ontario will spend to keep the facility open hasn't been determined, Wynne said. That will be determined through further talks.

But the province is working collaboratively with the Conservatives, the Manitoba government and others to keep the area operational this year and to ensure sustained longer-term operations, she said.

"My fear would be that if we don't continue this research, we're going to have to recreate it at some point down the line," Wynne said.

"And so to my mind, it makes more sense to continue this endeavour."

Staff with the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) say they want to be part of the ELA's long-term plan.

"I like to consider us as a possible home for the ELA, and that's a very general description. What the details of that are remain to be worked out," said Charles Dickson, a spokesman for the institute.

"What we're looking at is the potential of this place, if we can keep it running, if we can find the partners that will help us do that."

The Manitoba government says it is looking at ways it can support the IISD to ensure the ELA's future, but officials say significant federal support will be necessary.

'Where's the money coming from?'

Ontario Conservative Leader Tim Hudak questions whether the provincial government can afford to keep the site on its budget.

"It just seems like every day there's more Liberal spending happening. Every day there's some new announcement of a bigger more expensive government program," said Hudak.

"My question back is, where's the money coming from?"

The research performed in the area helps with pollution reduction strategies, understanding of climate change and how to protect lakes and rivers in Ontario, across Canada and around the world, Wynne said.

"We have had many conversations with members of the public and our scientific and academic communities who want to see the Experimental Lakes Area stay open," she said.

"Investing in science and research to help us understand and prevent pollution is a wise investment for the people of Ontario."

Many scientific researchers have said the Conservative government is divesting the federal government of scientific expertise and research ability.

They say the closure jeopardizes the long-term data that has been collected for four decades.

With files from Canadian Press and CBC Toronto's Mike Crawley