PLACE

Fifty years af­ter it started, the Ex­per­i­men­tal Lakes Area con­tin­ues to pro­vide a home for the study of fresh wa­ter

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Jake Mac­don­ald

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.

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