Fifty years after it started, the Experimental Lakes Area continues to provide a home for the study of fresh water
Canada’s renowned Experimental Lakes Area after 50 years of improving aquatic conservation
BBACK IN THE 1960S it was a radical idea: choose some pristine lakes in Canada’s vast boreal forest and despoil them with pollutants. Dumping phosphorus, bitumen and other toxins into crystalline lakes might seem like a crime, but the research conducted at northwestern Ontario’s Experimental Lakes Area, or ELA, which turns 50 this year, has proven invaluable to aquatic ecosystems around the world. Like many good ideas, it was born of necessity. The postwar industrial boom of the 1950s projected unprecedented volumes of toxins into water, and books such as Silent Spring signalled growing concerns about the environmental costs of progress. In 1966, scientists from Winnipeg’s Freshwater Institute convinced the federal and Ontario governments that solutions could only be developed by experimenting with real lakes. At the time, there was heated debate about the cause of lake eutrophication (algae buildup), and in 1968 the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests gave the scientists exclusive use of 46 small lakes east of Kenora. In 1973, scientists at the ELA divided Lake 226 into two basins, overfertilizing one with carbon and nitrogen, and the other with carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. David Schindler, now a worldfamous limnologist, was a young scientist at the time, and recalls the stunning results. “Within a few weeks,” he says, “the part of the lake we treated with phosphorus turned bright green.” That experiment, often cited as the most important in the history of limnology, persuaded governments that phosphorus needed to be controlled. (Phosphorus runoff is still a major problem in bodies of water such as lakes Winnipeg and Erie.) Michael Paterson, a director and senior scientist at the ELA, says its scientists have also conducted crucial research into greenhouse gas, methylmercury and birth control products in fish. “When you pick up a detergent and read the label, that research was partly developed at the ELA,” Paterson says. “We’re looking forward, too, to examining issues that could become problems, such as bitumen oil spills in freshwater lakes.” Funding for the ELA has been threatened a number of times, by both Liberal and Conservative federal governments. But in 2014, it was taken over by the International Institute for Sustainable Development — an independent agency that champions environmental sustainability. Today, the ELA comprises 58 small lakes and seems to be facing a secure future. Matt Mccandless, the organization’s executive director, believes its influence has grown much larger than its modest public profile. “Most people aren’t familiar with the ELA,” he says, “but this little facility in the Ontario backwoods has changed the world.” Read more about some of the Experimental Lakes Area’s most important experiments at cangeo.ca/so18/ela.