The Trudeau government is spending $1.7 million over the next two years on environmental research at the Experimental Lakes Area, the northwestern Ontario scientific facility once threatened with closure by the former Harper government.

Kenora Liberal MP Bob Nault announced $850,000 in annual, short-term funding for the former federal facility, which Ottawa transferred in 2014 to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Winnipeg-based environmental policy think tank.

During the federal election campaign in 2015, the Liberals promised to “make new investments in Canada’s world-leading IISD Experimental Lakes Area.”

They followed up on that pledge, with Nault making an announcement Tuesday in Kenora on behalf of Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc.

“The Government of Canada understands the role and value of science in everyday life,” Nault said at a news conference outside Kenora’s Lake of the Woods Discovery Centre on Wednesday.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, left, walks with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and other officials at an event Wednesday announcing funding for the Experimental Lakes Area. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

The additional $850,000 a year is on top of an existing Fisheries and Oceans Canada contribution of $250,000 toward the ELA’s annual budget, which now stands at $3.6 million.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, whose Liberal government provides the ELA with $2 million worth of annual operating funds, reconfirmed that commitment through 2018. So did Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, whose Progressive Conservative government contributes $1 million in annual funds to the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

“These incredible financial commitments form our provincial partners allow scientists to conduct a wide array of research that helps us better understand our freshwater resources,” Nault said.

The ELA, located approximately 75 kilometres east of Kenora, obtains its remaining $450,000 in annual funding from private sources. Matt McCandless, executive director of IISD-ELA, said the diversity of funding sources places his organization on more stable financial footing.

Experimental Lakes Area

The fish lab was only open for a couple of months in 2012 before the federal government announced plans to close the facility. It’s busy again. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

Whole-ecosystem research

The ELA encompasses hundreds of lakes in a rectangle of Crown land between Ontario Highway 17 and Dryberry Lake as well as a field station on the north shore of Boundary Lake.

It is the only place in the world where scientists conduct whole-ecosystem experiments on near-pristine lakes in order to obtain results that can not be obtained via single-variable laboratory research.

Freshwater scientists have permission to manipulate 58 of the ELA’s lakes in order to conduct environmental research. In any given year, active experiments are underway on two or three of the lakes, while several others are in recovery from previous experiments.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne on ELA funding1:51

Since the ELA was founded in 1968, research at the facility has led to a near-global ban on phosphate in detergent, regulations controlling acid rain, confirmation that birth-control drugs can disrupt fish reproduction and a demonstration of the need to control coal-plant emissions to prevent methylated mercury from winding up in aquatic ecosystems.

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.

While the closure would have shaved about $2 million off the Fisheries and Oceans budget, but also would have triggered a cleanup job estimated at about $50 million. When the feds established the ELA, their initial deal with Ontario called for all the lakes within the area to be returned to their natural state.

Outrage amid the scientific community was followed by negotiations that led Ottawa to transfer the ELA in 2014 to Ontario, which then flipped the research area to the International Institute for Sustainable Development. 

The transfer was in effect a merger, as ELA-IISD now combines the practical research conducted at the ELA with the policy and communications work conducted by the IISD.

Ontario Premier Wynne, who paddled through the Experimental Lakes Area last summer with her partner, said she is pleased the Trudeau Liberals are funding freshwater science at ELA once more.

“I’m thrilled we have now a federal government that’s back in the game,” she said in a less-than-oblique reference to the Harper government.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister on government commitment to ELA0:46

Manitoba Premier Pallister, who once sat alongside former prime minister Stephen Harper as a Conservative MP, declined to criticize the federal Conservatives for the aborted effort to close the ELA.

“Every government has to make difficult decisions. All of us here who are part of governments know that and I think it’s important to be respectful of the decisions others have made,” Pallister said.

“We obviously have taken a different approach as a provincial partner in this exercise.”

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