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A sign marking one of the many lakes that are part of the Experimental Lakes Area near Kenora, Ont., is photographed Nov 1 2012. The research facility examines, using experimental lakes, the effect of human activities on lakes and their watersheds.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

There were times when Diane Orihel thought her efforts to save Canada's world-renowned freshwater research station would be futile.

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) was slated in May, 2012, to be closed when the federal Conservative government said the facility, which had provided groundbreaking research into the human impact on ecosystems for more than 40 years, no longer meshed with its mandate.

Dr. Orihel, an aquatic biologist who had done experiments at the outdoor laboratory, mobilized other scientists and eventually thousands of ordinary Canadians to rally for its preservation. But it still took nearly two years for the fight to pay off.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), a Winnipeg-based think tank, announced Tuesday that is has signed three agreements with the federal government and the province of Ontario to assume operation of the ELA, preserving the facility and allowing experiments to resume in time for the spring field season.

"I am just thrilled. I am so happy, I am speechless right now," said Dr. Orihel. "This was really what we have all been working for – to rebuild a new ELA. Initially, we had hoped to convince the Harper government to reinstate the federal funding for ELA. Basically that was never going to happen and we needed to develop a new solution. So, luckily, the IISD – kudos to them – stepped forward."

Scott Vaughan, the president of the IISD, said he has received letters and donations from Canadians across the country who realize the importance of the research conducted at the ELA.

"The Experimental Lakes Area has been directly responsible for literally hundreds of regulations around the world in order to safeguard water quality, to safeguard human health from different types of contaminants," said Mr. Vaughan. The ELA is "the only whole-lake, whole-ecosystem facility in the world able to do this type of research."

The transfer of ELA was a complicated process that involved protracted negotiations to resolve.

Separate deals were required between Ontario and the IISD, between Canada and the IISD, and a trilateral Canada-Ontario-IISD agreement that ensures an open-data policy for scientific research. The three agreements involving the IISD were preceded by two bilateral Canada-Ontario pacts.

All major new research at the ELA has been put on hold since the federal government announced it was going to be closed. At many points over the past two years, the scientists had little hope that it would survive.

But Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said this past September that her province would step in to contribute up to $2-million to keep the ELA running – an offer that provided the financial footings for the takeover by the IISD.

"This took significant effort by the province to negotiate an agreement that ensured we maintained and protected the scientific research that is taking place," said David Orazietti, Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources. "Obviously the benefits exceed the boundaries of our province."

Greg Rickford, the federal Natural Resources Minister whose riding encompasses the ELA – and who was accused by the scientists of staying quiet while his government made plans to close the research station – said he was pleased that a new operator had been found.

The IISD says the transfer opens the possibility of an expansion of the ELA's role to include training, workshops and field courses that will educate and benefit local communities, as well as the greater scientific community.

"This is a new day to look forward to building on the incredible foundation" of the ELA, said Mr. Vaughan, "but also to look forward to the new challenges that we know we are all facing."

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