TheStar: Conservative government shutting down northern Ontario world-class freshwater research facility

TheStar.com Conservative government shutting down northern Ontario world-class freshwater research facility

May 17, 2012

Allan Woods

OTTAWA—The Conservative government is shuttering a scientific “jewel” in northern Ontario that has put Canada at the forefront of global freshwater lake research, the Toronto Star has learned.

The federal fisheries department announced Thursday morning that it intends to close down the Experimental Lakes Area, a collection of 58 lakes near Kenora.

From acid rain to mercury levels to climate change and the effects of household phosphates on freshwater ecosystems, the open-air research facility has seen it all, and often been the site of world-leading breakthroughs in science.

“In our scientific community it’s an international jewel,” said Yves Prairie, a professor in the department of biology at Universite du Quebec a Montreal. “This is where some of the most significant advances in our science have occurred in the last 40 years.”

“For us, it’s completely incredible that the government would shut it down given the international stature that it has and the importance for the field.”

The word comes as federal lawmakers debate a controversial budget billthat eases rules on environmental assessments, removes protection for fish and wildlife and scraps agencies like the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an independent panel struck to help Ottawa balance environmental protection with economic growth.

Before the Experimental Lakes Area was created, biologists studying freshwater lakes and ecosystems were forced to collect water in containers and truck it back to the lab for tests and experiments with less than reliable results.

After the Ontario government deeded the area to the federal government in the late 1960s, scientists were able to manipulate whole lakes to study some of the most pressing water issues of the day.

Since then, it has drawn some of the top scientists into freshwater ecosystems from Canada, the United States and around the world.

In announcing the closure, the government said such work is now better carried out by universities and non-governmental organizations.

“Their assertion that universities can do this sort of stuff is just absurd. They simply do not give, via any of their mechanisms, the kind of money needed to run a facility like that,” said David Schindler, a University of Alberta ecology professor who helped to set up the Experimental Lakes Area.

Schindler said he was saddened but not surprised to hear of the decision.

“It’s not a surprise given the total lack of appreciation for science in this government,” he said. “It’s pretty tragic and it’s indicative of what we face for the next four years with this bunch of glib soothsayers for politicians.”

A 2004 audit of the Experimental Lakes Area by the federal fisheries department found some management problems, including an annual deficit of $77,000, a poorly documented cost recovery system, an informal and inefficient system of charging and collecting per diems from visiting scientists, and research that was inconsistent with departmental activities and priorities.

A follow-up audit in 2008 found that “the most critical” shortcomings had been addressed.

But scientists say that the work completed at the chain of lakes in northern Ontario has always been timely and critical to the issues of the day.

Prairie, who is vice president of the Society of Canadian Limnologists, recalled that freshwater scientists were studying the effects of acid rain in the 1980s at the same time as Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was negotiating his famous Acid Rain Treaty with U.S. Presidents Ronald Regan and his successor, George W. Bush.

In another landmark experiment in the 1970s, researchers divided up a lake into two parts to study the effects of phosphates on the water, assuming that they were behind the phenomenon of oxygen-depriving blue-green algae.

Companies who made and sold household detergents and shampoos rigorously denied that phosphates were the reason that lakes were becoming green and murky rather than remaining crystal clear.

The experiment involved adding carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus into one half of the lake and leaving the phosphorous out of the other half.

“There are classic pictures you can see where one side is completely green and the other side is clear as it was before,” Prairie said. “It proved beyond any reasonable doubt that phosphorous was the culprit. This is part of what made the legislation about how much phosphate can go in the system began.”

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