The federal government has cancelled funding for the Experimental Lakes Area, a one-of-a-kind freshwater research site in northwestern Ontario that has been instrumental in re-shaping international conservation policies.

Now the Coalition to Save ELA has launched a national public petition to officially oppose this decision. The petition calls on the Government of Canada to recognize the value of ELA in studying, preserving and protecting freshwater ecosystems by reversing their recent decision to close its doors.

Why is the Experimental Lakes Area so important? A series of 58 small, pristine lakes not far from Kenora, in northwestern Ontario, the ELA provides scientists the unique opportunity to do applied research on entire freshwater ecosystems. Ecologists say the ELA is to water research what the Hubble Space Telescope is to astronomy or the Large Hadron Collider is to physics. The loss of this program, which costs a modest $2 million a year to operate, has stunned and appalled scientists across North America, and around the world.

“For a country which worries constantly about whether its programs are ‘world class,’ why would we want to eliminate such a unique and important facility?” said Dr. David Schindler, in comments to Outdoor Canada. A world-renowned University of Alberta ecologist (and OC contributor), Schindler helped found the Experimental Lakes Area program in 1968, headed the facility for two decades, and has received dozens of national and international awards for his work at ELA.

Former ELA head Dr. David Schindler says the unique, important" facility is "of outstanding benefit to Canadians.”

Among other notable achievements, Schindler led a team that definitively proved phosphates in detergents and household products were causing lakes to turn green with algae. This led to international changes in ingredients for those products. In addition, research undertaken at the Experimental Lakes Area in the 1970s forced the federal government to officially recognize acid rain as a problem, resulting in a series of air quality agreements between the United States and Canada. It has also provided vital information about mercury pollution, greenhouse gases, hydro power development, fish-farming and much more.


Despite the ELA's sterling reputation and record of internationally recognized results, on May 17, employees of  Fisheries & Oceans Canada were told that the facility, no longer "aligned with the department's mandate and is not responding to our research priorities," and would be shuttered in March 2013.

Research in these areas may not reflect DFO’s recent priorities, which are almost entirely focused on cod and salmon stocks, said Schindler. But he insists there should be a place for the ELA within the federal government’s numerous environmental departments.

“Repeated scientific reviews and auditor generals’ reports have revealed that ELA’s science has been of outstanding benefit to Canadians in solving national and global freshwater problems,” he said.

Before the ELA program began in 1968, most evidence of the effects of pollutants on lakes and aquatic life came either from laboratory experiments or from monitoring lakes that had been polluted for many years. However these experiments had major limitations, since natural ecosystem interactions cannot be reproduced, and living organisms often do not behave naturally in laboratory conditions.

ELA-Aerial photo of lake ELA USGS ela_wl-aerial2-99
The ELA has been used to study the effects of pollutants, such as phosphates and mercury since 1968.

“Only ecosystem-scale experiments can directly address some of the very environmental policy questions that Members of Parliaments face on a regular basis,” said Schindler. “As in the case of [phophates] and acid rain, wrong decisions can mean wasting billions of dollars on policies that do not work.”


The ELA’s abrupt closure means invaluable water research projects—studies not being performed anywhere else in the world—will be lost, and their future findings lost with them. This includes a one-of-a-kind climate change study and the only investigation in the world looking at what happens in a lake polluted by nanosilver, the increasingly popular antimicrobial agent found in everything from household cleaning sponges to socks to toys.

“The results of ELA experiments can have enormous economic implications, not only in Canada but globally,” Schindler said. “Our politicians must realize that the role of science can influence prosperity in other ways than simply inventing gadgets to sell.”

The Save ELA coalition is hopeful the petition will send a strong message to the government—that Canadians value clean water, healthy lakes and plentiful fish populations, and are willing to stand up and fight for it.

For more information about the ELA and the fight to save it, visit