If Ottawa won’t, Ontario must [Experimental Lakes Area] – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (April 8, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

The Experimental Lakes Area may be down, but surely — surely — it’s not out. The federal government last week formally closed the unique freshwater research station, located near Kenora. In doing so, it will save a whopping $2 million a year (actually, they’ll save less than that, because much of that $2 million is made up via user fees).

The casualty — aside from the growing political price the Conservatives are paying — is invaluable scientific research into, essentially, the effects of human activities on freshwater ecosystems. That research is vital. It’s incredibly important that we know, exactly, what effects our activities have on the natural world, the fresh water we consume, and the animals and plants that live in and around it.

It is appalling that the federal government would choose to close such a valuable and important facility, ignoring informed pleas and warnings from the global scientific community. The ELA plays too important a role in scientific research to be shuttered and forgotten.

The timing, however, may be good. The Ontario government is in its annual budget mode. That budget has yet to be tabled, but may we suggest it contain some money earmarked for the takeover and continued operation of the Experimental Lakes Area?

We’re not the only ones in favour of such a move. Environment North vice-president Graham Saunders made the case directly to the province last Wednesday, urging the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs to in turn urge the Ontario government take the ELA’s reins.

Hopefully, the committee was listening — it appeared they were — and will take Saunders’ well-researched presentation back to Queen’s Park, and push to have ELA funding included in the upcoming budget.

There would be an up-front cost in addition to the $2 million in annual operating costs. Saunders told the committee some rehabilitation work needs to be done; he said that would amount to somewhere around $10 million (a lot of money, but a far cry from the $50 million the feds are claiming the rehabilitation process will cost).

So, $10 million up front, $2 million yearly (again, some of the annual costs will be covered by fees). In return, the government is supporting critical, cutting-edge research, and the work of scientists worldwide into the effects of industrial and climactic activity on fresh water.

And then there’s the political goodwill the move would earn the province, particularly in the North.

There has always been talk at the government level about “investing” in the knowledge economy in the region. They love to tout the investments they make in things like CRIBE, after all.

Those are important investments, to be sure, but let’s be honest: many of these high-tech initiatives are transient. They come here for the funding, but could just as easily operate out of Toronto or Vancouver or somewhere else.

Not so with the ELA. There is no place else in the world that could host such a facility. Northern Ontario has that locked down. It’s a truly northern initiative with global implications, and the work being done there is something all Northerners can be proud of.

Let’s hope the province sees it that way, too.