Jun. 06, 2012 - Issue #868: Hot Summer Guide
Ending the Experimental Lakes Area an "assault" on environmental science
When University of Alberta scientist Diane Orihel thinks of the camaraderie at the Experimental Lakes Area, she thinks of singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith. The world-renowned water research centre has a reputation for building close ties between researchers from all sorts of disciplines. So when one of the scientists at the station was about to retire, they called him to an emergency meeting to discuss an important policy change. What they actually handed him was an ad for a beachfront concert they'd arranged just for him that night, featuring country singer Fred Eaglesmith.
By this time next year though, the northwestern Ontario facility will likely be closed. The federal government has decided to stop funding the Experimental Lakes Area by March 2013, arguing that it's time to hand it off to universities or a non-governmental organization. University of Alberta researchers who work there say that's been tried and failed before. Some are gearing up for a fight to protect it.
Orihel first went to the Experimental Lakes Area a decade ago to investigate how mercury flows through aquatic ecosystems. She is well aware that her research would be impossible without having a lake's food web to experiment with. It's part of the reason she's helped found the Coalition to Save ELA. The group has been organizing petitions and asking fellow scientists and supporters across the country to make some noise and defend its unique work.
Governments (including Pierre Trudeau's) have tried to shut down the ELA before, only to cave in to public backlash. Orihel's group is hoping to rally the same kind of outcry in phone calls and public letters from the scientific community that's nurtured decades of both studies and individuals at the facility.
Being able to work with teams studying everything from water chemistry to invertebrates, she said, is as vital for the scientists' development as it is for their research.
"Picture Precambrian rock, clear lakes, evergreen trees, undulating landscapes," Orihel said. "For a lot of people, it really allows them to make their connection with nature in a way that you really can't do if you're working in a laboratory. You'd lose your skills of being a naturalist. You may be able to study that particular fish, invertebrate or algae in a laboratory, but you've lost the context."
Since 1968, research immersed in that context of a lake environment has changed what's in our detergents, our air and our water. One of the first studies at the ELA dramatically showed that after adding phosphorus to a lake, it became smothered in green algae. That led to legislation removing phosphates from our detergents. More recent studies have exposed effects of hormones in our water, and hydroelectric reservoirs' greenhouse gas problems.
U of A ecologist David Schindler helped start the ELA in the 1960s, and says the ability to experiment with whole lake ecosystems gives research there the punch to influence decisions. "The reason for that initially," Dr Schindler says, "was that the then-director of the Freshwater Institute found that policy-makers were reluctant to make policy when the only evidence they saw was in a little beaker or aquarium." Since then, it's never stopped producing research with major policy implications.
In the U of A's Department of Biology, Rolf Vinebrooke leads research at the ELA on how lakes recover from stresses like acidification and warming. Vincent St Louis, based in the same department, has been part of a joint US-Canadian study expected to have major impacts on setting mercury emissions standards.
Dr Schindler himself has been part of an experiment running for over 40 years to compare what happens when combinations of nitrogen and phosphorus are added to lakes. Governments from Manitoba to the Baltic Sea have been watching its results because both are found in agricultural runoff and sewage. The study has shown, says Schindler, that governments trying to cut down on algal blooms could save billions by focusing just on reducing phosphorus.
Fisheries and Oceans Parliamentary Secretary Randy Kamp has said the ELA would be better managed by a university or a non-governmental organization, but the evidence for that seems weak. Only a few years ago, says Schindler, the government tried this and found it wasn't feasible.
The Department of Fisheries and Oceans currently acts as a year-round presence at the station, supporting university scientists coming in to do research. U of A representatives said it doesn't make sense to ask a university to support the administrative costs of all of the multinational partners that use the facility. Even if they wanted to, they added, universities' funding and research cycles aren't stable enough. "They're four-year cycles," Orihel points out, "so you can't do whole ecosystem experimentation within that timeframe. Long-term ecological monitoring has to be continuous, which doesn't fit into the kind of research that university researchers do. When you go out there, you become one part of a whole, and the DFO scientists provide the continuity there."
It's unclear where the federal government expects the money to come from, since it's also cutting money for science and engineering research grants. Dr Schindler was recently in Ottawa testifying on the environmental laws getting drastic surgery in the omnibus budget legislation. He said the Conservative MPs on the Finance Committee seemed "hellbent" on both passing the bill and removing all the scientific tools to find out what its effects will be, like the Experimental Lakes Area and the ocean contaminants research program. "The only thing you can call it," says Schindler, "is a wholesale assault on environmental science."
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