News Manitoba

More research to be done, says ELA scientist Orihel

Michel Forest
ELA scientist Diane Orihel (on the left) and Nancy Chippendale, Communications Director for the Manitoba Liberal Caucus stand outside the press conference held by PM Stephen Harper to announce funding for Phase 2 of the Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative. Orihel maintains that ELA still has an important role to play in the research on Lake Winnipeg, while the federal government plans to terminate the program in 2013.

ELA scientist Diane Orihel (on the left) and Nancy Chippendale, Communications Director for the Manitoba Liberal Caucus stand outside the press conference held by PM Stephen Harper to announce funding for Phase 2 of the Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative. Orihel maintains that ELA still has an important role to play in the research on Lake Winnipeg, while the federal government plans to terminate the program in 2013.

On Aug. 2, Prime Minister Harper was in Gimli to announce funding in the amount of just under $18 million for research on Lake Winnipeg, which will be the five-year Phase 2 of the Lake Winnipeg Basin Initiative that was created back in the fall of 2007.

Diane Orihel, Coalition to Save ELA Leader, and Dr. Jon Gerrard, Manitoba Liberal Leader were in Gimli to applaud the funds for Lake Winnipeg, but also warned that the loss of the ELA program and its scientists will devastate the capacity of the scientific community to address the causes and find the solutions to Lake Winnipeg's problems.

"The government has made it clear that it is determined to abolish the ELA research program as of March 31, 2013," said Gerrard during a telephone interview last Friday. "There are other alternatives to this, such as handing the program over to the province of Manitoba or perhaps a university consortium of reseachers. The best solution is of course for the federal government to change its mind and maintain ELA," added Gerrard.

Lake Winnipeg is one of Canada's Great Lakes and a foundation of Manitoba's economic, social, and cultural well-being. Every summer, massive blooms of 'blue-green' algae plague Lake Winnipeg and many nutrient-polluted lakes across the country. Algal blooms cause fish kills, increase the cost of drinking water treatment, devalue shoreline properties, and pose health risks to children, pets, and livestock.

Gerrard also pointed out that since its creation in 1968, the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) has become widely recognized as one of the leading institutions anywhere at the forefront of understanding algal blooms. (The ELA consists of a team of federal government scientists at DFO's Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, Manitoba and a unique field research station in northwestern Ontario consisting of 58 pristine lakes set aside for research.)

The ELA was thus established in the late 1960s to study the algal blooms that were choking the life out of Lake Erie. Given the size and complexity of Lake Erie, it was necessary to conduct controlled experiments on small lakes at ELA to test which nutrient limits growth of algae. From the pioneering studies at ELA, phosphorus was removed from detergents and sewage effluent, and water quality improved in Lake Erie as well as many other lakes around the world.

And now the Harper government wants to terminate the program, alleging that it no longer falls within the mandate of the Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans.

"We have no really received a satisfactory answer as to the real reasons behind this decision," said Diane Orihel during an interview from her lab in northwestern Ontario. "It seems as though the ELA - which has a budget of only $2 million - has become sort of a moving target. And lost in all of this is that the the Environment Canada portion of ELA funding has also been terminated," added Orihel.

Conservative MP James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake) explained that "research is best served by working on exactly where the problem lies".

Orihel flatly says that "This is partly incorrect - restoring Lake Winnipeg will require a monitoring of the state of the lake AS WELL AS performing controlled experiments in model systems to test hypotheses concerning the causes and solutions to the lake's poor health. What is lost on Bezan is that much of the research done on Lake Winnipeg during the past several decades has been accomplished by ELA scientists."

Orihel says that given the contribution of ELA to Lake Winnipeg Research, it makes no sense for the Conservatives to try and create a false dichotomy by pitting funding for Lake Winnipeg against funding for ELA.

"Much of the fundamental understanding of nutrient management in lakes so critical to the recovery of Lake Winnipeg has and is being developed at the ELA" explains Ray Hesslein, Lake Winnipeg Foundation Science Advisory Board. Further, ELA staff were responsible for surveys of Lake Winnipeg in the 1960s, and were instrumental in discovering the major changes in Lake Winnipeg following the 1997 flood.

Orihel goes on to say that "There still remain many unanswered questions as to how we should proceed to restore the health of the lake, for example whether to reduce only phosphorus or nitrogen or both, as has been suggested by the province of Manitoba's Clean Environment Commission."

"We should also be looking into the role of sulphur pollution in the lake and its effect on algal blooms," continues Orihel, citing sources such as burning fossil fuels, agricultural fertilizer as well as sewage.

"In addition to monitoring what is actually happening in Lake Winnipeg, we need to continue with the experimental research on lakes that have been set aside for this very purpose. And that is where the ELA plays such an important role, in 'whole ecosystem experimentation'," concluded Orihel.

- with files from the Coalition to Save ELA

michel.forest@sunmedia.ca