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A sign marks one of the many lakes that are part of the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ont. (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
A sign marks one of the many lakes that are part of the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ont. (FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Time running out for world-renowned Canadian lab as transfer deal remains elusive Add to ...

The closing of Canada’s world-renowned freshwater research station is looming without an agreement to transfer it out of federal hands or an indication of how much money Ontario is willing to chip in to help save it.

The federal Conservative government no longer wants any part of the Experimental Lakes Area, an outdoor laboratory that has operated in northwestern Ontario for 40 years and provided groundbreaking research on the effects of pollutants such as acid rain and phosphates.

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After shuttering the facility in April, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said in early May that it would reopen on a limited basis while the department negotiated transferring it to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. That announcement came two weeks after Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said her government was willing to “put operating dollars” toward keeping the ELA open and allowing its “extremely important work” to continue.

But the agreement between the federal government and the province that permits scientists to perform experiments in the 58 lakes of the ELA will expire on Sept. 1. Negotiations between the DFO and the IISD have yet to produce results. If no final deal is reached by the end of August, the ELA will no longer officially exist and will again be locked down.

“After the announcements in the spring from Ontario, DFO, and IISD, many people assumed ELA was almost safe on home base,” Diane Orihel, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta who has been leading a fight to keep the ELA running, said on Tuesday. “But the truth is that ELA has hardly made it to first base. There is still a long road ahead to save the ELA.”

The IISD needs to know the size of the Ontario commitment before it can develop a business plan and determine what kind of fundraising will be necessary to keep the facility afloat.

But Ontario has not provided any concrete information about the money, Ms. Orihel said. “This is worrisome, and we hope that Ontario will soon be forthcoming about these details. The fate of ELA very much hinges upon the support of Ontario.”

Asked when the province will reveal how much support it is willing to provide to the ELA, a spokeswoman for the province’s Natural Resources Ministry said: “We acknowledge there are a number of topics related to the Experimental Lakes Area that Ontario continues to work on with Canada and the IISD.”

IISD president Scott Vaughan was unavailable to comment this week about the state of the negotiations. And the federal government would say only that the DFO and the IISD “are committed to ensuring that these discussions are successful.”

But the uncertainty about the funding prompted a senior DFO official to tell scientists there could be a “gap” after Sept. 1 when the ELA would be closed. “Are we talking a matter of days or weeks?” Ms. Orihel said. “Or are we talking years? We have no information.”

Scott Milne, the owner of a company that does technical work for the Canadian Network for Aquatic Ecosystem Services of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, returned from the ELA on Sunday. He had spent a week testing new acoustic technology that would allow scientists to survey the health of a lake quickly by measuring the number of fish, zooplankton populations and other indicators.

When it is fully developed, it is expected to be an invaluable tool for assessing lakes across Canada.

Mr. Milne said he and the other scientists working on the project were “sweating” when they thought they could not get into the ELA this season because it is the only place in Canada, and possibly the world, where the calibration work on the technology could be done. The “ELA was written into the grant as a major component of the work we wanted to do,” he said. “It’s critical, and I am sure glad we had access to it this year and I hope we will continue to have access to it down the road.”

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