Canada Closing World-Renowned Experimental Lakes Area

Aerial view of some of the ELA experimental lakes Courtesy: University of Guelph

It’s entirely possible that you’ve never heard of Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area. (ELA) But if you enjoy clean water, recreational fishing, and all the other benefits that lakes and rivers provide – your life has been directly affected by the ground-breaking research conducted over the past 40 years on a collection of 58 lakes in southwestern Ontario.
The ELA concept of conducting long-term, large-scale, whole-lake experiments stemmed in part from Waldo “Wally” Johnson, a former limnology student here in Madison.
Johnson studied under former CFL director, Art Hasler, and did a lot of his research up north on Peter and Paul lakes, two bodies of water that the CFL has long used for whole-lake experiments. Johnson was tabbed, along with Jack Vallentyne, to tackle the huge task of getting the ELA up and running in the late 60s and early 70s. His vision of whole-lake experiments helped shape a four-decade run of research that shaped international policies on issues from acid rain to phosphorous runoff.
Last week, Canada’s federal fisheries department directed scientists stationed at the ELA to begin closing down shop – No new experiments would be run. No new funds would be raised. And no public announcement would be made.
Satellite view of phosphorous-driven algal blooms on Lake Mendota and Monona

Of course when you decide to shutter a research project responsible for much of what the world now knows about acid rain, nutrient pollution, mercury contamination and aquaculture, it’s hard to keep it under wraps.
Almost immediately after ELA scientists had been informed of the government’s decision, national news sites picked up the story. By this week, scientists around the globe had weighed in on the closure.
Our own director, Steve Carpenter, admits that he was taken by surprise at the closure.
“The ELA has been really, really important,” he says. For example, ELA experiments “proved that phosphorous was the driver of lake eutrophication. That had a huge impact on policy in the U.S., Canada and the world.”
Carpenter believes the demise of the ELA would be a “tragedy.”
“It’s particularly strange that they’re doing this at a time when freshwater is recognized as the most important and limiting resource for human life on the planet,” he said.
CFL professor Jake Vander Zanden agrees, writing that “shutting down ELA is shocking (and terrible) news in the freshwater world.”
Ironically, the ELA was run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the major enforcement and natural resource management agency for Canada’s freshwater and marine ecosystems. The department must now move forward in its mission of protecting these areas without the tool it had used to create its policies over the last 43 years.
The Conservative administration of prime minister Stephen Harper stated that the government shouldn’t be involved in research on this scale and cited the move as a cost-saving measure. The administration offered hopes that some Canadian university would step into the void and lead the ELA.
But that’s unlikely, says Carpenter. “When you’re doing 20 year experiments, you really need the backbone provided by permanent, long-term support.” He doubts any university would be willing to risk starting long-term research projects on grants that could run out or be terminated long before the projects have been completed.
Map of ELA Lakes Courtesy: Experimental Lakes Area