SECTION-1 Restoration, Remediation and Conservation Strategies



ABSTRACT: first topic previous topic next topic last topic

The Canadian Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) originated as a Canadian governmental response to a request for expanded resources by the International Joint Commission for a binational investigation of transboundary pollution in the lower Great Lakes. The ELA is located in a Precambrian shield area of central Canada. In 1968 by agreement between the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada 56 small lakes and their catchment areas were set aside for experimental studies of the causes and control of eutrophication and other types of water pollution. The origin and development of the Freshwater Institute and the Experimental Lakes Area are described and related to the history of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada over the period from its origin in 1898 to its dissolution in 1979. The ELA details are available at: http://

INTRODUCTION: first topic previous topic next topic last topic

The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) of northwestern Ontario arose in response to a 1964 "letter of reference" from the governments of the United States and Canada to the International Joint Commission (IJC). The governments stated that they had reason to believe that transboundary pollution was occurring in the waters of lakes Erie and Ontario and their connecting channels in violation of Article IV of the Boundary Waters Treaty (BWT) of 1909. The IJC was asked to investigate whether or not this was the case; and, in the event of positive findings, to report on the causes, sources, and practical remedial measures together with their probable costs.

The IJC is a body of six persons - three appointed by the President of the United States on the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, and three appointed by the Governor in Council of Canada on recommendation of the Prime Minister of Canada. Under the terms of the BWT the Commissioners are appointed to act as a single body in the interest of both the nations rather than as delegations under separate instructions of their respective governments.

In 1965, in reply to the letter of reference, the IJC stated that the governments would have to make vastly increased resources available to the IJC for such a massive investigation. In response, the Canadian Government created two new environmental research centres: the Canada Centre for Inland Waters (CCIW) in Burlington, Ontario, with responsibility for physical, chemical and geological studies on the Great Lakes, and the Freshwater Institute (FWI) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with responsibility for biological studies on the Great Lakes and experiments on small lakes to document the causes and controls of water pollution.

This article describes the rationale that led to the creation of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) of northwestern Ontario, an outline of work over 30 years at ELA, and an evaluation of major factors that influenced development of the work.

THE FRESHWATER INSTITUTE (FWI): first topic previous topic next topic last topic

The Government of Canada assigned the responsibility for IJC-directed, biological studies on the Great Lakes and experimental pollution studies on small lakes to the Fisheries Research Board (FRB) of Canada. The FRB was funded by the Federal Department of Fisheries (later the Department of Fisheries and the Environment), however, the policy and a board mostly composed of university-based scientists set direction at its several laboratories. Involvement of the FRB was a crucial factor in attracting talented scientists to the FWI because of the Board's long history (1898-1973) of excellence in research on fisheries and aquatic science, both freshwater and marine (Johnstone 1977). For example, it facilitated the hiring of Richard Vollenweider from Europe to head the FRB detachment at CCIW following completion of his classic study of the causes and controls of eutrophication; and also David W. Schindler as Project Leader at the ELA. FRB policy was to locate research centres on the campuses of universities to maximize the use of library facilities and to provide a stimulating research environment for staff. Following exploratory discussions with several universities in western and central Canada, the FRB selected the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg as the most desirable site for the new Freshwater Institute. As an inducement, the University of Manitoba constructed a research building and leased it to the FRB for five years. When it became obvious that additional quarters would be needed before the end of the lease, the University added a second floor to the original building, with revised terms of the lease. At the end of the lease, FWI personnel moved into an adjacent, newly constructed and vastly expanded FRB research facility, and the leased building reverted to the University of Manitoba for use by its Department of Food Science.

The FWI came into being on September 1, 1966. Dr. W.E. (Wally) Johnson, who conceived the FWI program, including the idea of experimenting on whole lakes, was its first Director. Simultaneously, J.R.Vallentyne was appointed Scientific Leader of the Eutrophication Section responsible for IJC-directed biological studies pertinent to the control of pollution in the Great Lakes. Initially, he was empowered to hire 100 staff (research scientists, technicians, and assistants) for work in Winnipeg and Burlington. Fortunately, this was soon cut to half that number by budgetary restrictions imposed from above. "Fortunately" because, as was later discovered by research scientists at both centres, there is an optimum size for research groups. Below a certain number (perhaps about 50) the group is too small to be interactively functional; whereas above that number bureaucratic regulations tend to inhibit the free and easy research "spirit". At first, it was difficult to attract Canadian limnologists to Winnipeg. One deterrent was the central continental location (cold winters, with temperatures typically ranging down to 40 degrees below zero). Another was that Winnipeg was unknown for limnological research.

J.R. Vallentyne's policy in hiring staff was to select talented people, direct them to carry out fundamental research on applied environmental problems, and give them the resources that they needed to do their work. The quasi-independence and science-base of the FRB provided a healthy atmosphere for research compared to that of traditional government departments. A balanced age-distribution was also desirable. Accordingly, initial appointments were a mix of seasoned investigators (such as F.A.J Armstrong, a noted analytical chemist from England, Kaz Patalas, a noted zooplankton specialist from Poland, and Richard Vollenweider as head of the CCIW detachment) and hot young blood (such as David Schindler, Gregg Brunskill, A.L. Hamilton, E.J. Fee, John Stockner, Mike Stainton, and others). Key investigators were also invited for varying periods from other parts of the world (such as Mitsuru Sakamoto from Japan, Domenico Povoledo from Italy, Staffan Holmgren and Bengt Noven from Sweden, and young Ole Saether from Norway). Eric Marshall, formerly librarian at the Freshwater Biological Association in Windermere, England, was appointed librarian of the FWI. Eric provided links to other centres of freshwater science around the world, and was a librarian who knew what freshwater science was all about. Independently, J.R.Vallentyne's wife Ann organized a "Ladies Linguistic Association" that met monthly and arranged for multi-cultural parties once a year. All these provided a rich blend of skills, ages and cultures that did much to create a stimulating research atmosphere.

THE EXPERIMENTAL LAKES AREA: first topic previous topic next topic last topic

After preliminary surveys using topographic maps, fixed wing aircraft and finally helicopters, a site was chosen for the ELA that fulfilled all the original criteria (proximity to Winnipeg and a high density of small, deep, headwater lakes in an unsettled area with minimal groundwater influence). Following negotiations with the Province of Ontario and two logging companies that held timber rights in the area an agreement was signed in the spring of 1968 setting aside 56 small headwater lakes and their watersheds for experimental studies on eutrophication and other forms of water pollution. A logging road was extended to a campsite at the junction of Lakes 239 and 240, and pre-designed trailers were hauled in to provide living and working facilities. Simultaneously, David W. Schindler, only two years out of graduate school as Rhodes scholar at Oxford University, England, was hired as Project Director of the ELA. Schindler was a key appointment because of his drive, no-nonsense philosophy, and integrative scientific skills.

The ELA is located on the Precambrian Shield of central Canada, approximately 300 km east of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and 70 km south of Kenora, Ontario. Most of the lakes and their drainage basins set aside for research ranged in area from about 5 to 20 hectares have maximum depths up to about 20 m and Secchi depths of 1 to 5 m. A helicopter survey in 1968 showed that total dissolved solids in the surface waters of 435 lakes in the general area range from 3 mg/L to 140 mg/L, with a mean of 36 mg/L. Conductivity at 25 degrees C ranged from 11 micromhos/cm to 161 micromhos/cm, with a mean of 29 micromhos/cm. Fourteen articles in Volume 28, No. 2 (pages 123-301) of the Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada (1971) described the ELA and early results of initial studies.

WHY EXPERIMENTAL LAKES? first topic previous topic next topic last topic

Why lakes? The answer lies in the long residence time of water in lakes compared to rivers. Most rivers flush 95% of their water down to oceans in a matter of months or years. The theoretical water replenishment time for lakes is much longer. The critical factor for lakes is the volume of water in the lake (say, in cubic meters) relative to the outflow (in cubic meters per year). Dividing the volume by outflow yields the theoretical water replenishment time in years. Using a first order equation (based on constant 50% removal times) one can calculate the approximate 90% removal times for conservative pollutants (those that, like sodium ions, follow the movements of water) by multiplying the theoretical water replenishment time by a factor of 3. On this basis the 90% removal times for conservative pollutants from the Great Lakes are: about 500-600 years for Lake Superior, 250-300 years for Lake Michigan, 60-70 years for Lake Huron, 9-10 years for Lake Erie, and 25-30 years for Lake Ontario.

The most important reasons for setting aside a region for long-term experiments on whole lakes are:

  • to test correlation and inferences from observed anthropogenic changes in natural water bodies by experiments directly linking causes to effects;
  • to distinguish day-to-day and year-to-year variations attributable to extraneous factors from those attributable to anthropogenic causes; and
  • to permit cause-effect studies on freshwater organisms and communities that cannot be maintained in their natural states in the laboratory or in experimental enclosures such as "limno-corrals."
  • While many valuable inferences have been drawn from observations on natural and polluted water bodies without recourse to premeditated experiments, a full scientific understanding of causes and mechanisms demands freely ranging hypotheses and experimental tests. As background, it must be realized that less than 1% of freshwater organisms have been cultured in the laboratory for more than a generation; and that in no case has it been possible to maintain any natural aquatic community in a natural state (relative to the body of water from which it came) for significant periods of time. Aquatic organisms adapt to artificial changes in their environments. This limits the applicability of experimental results on isolated organisms and communities to natural circumstances. While experiments on whole lakes overcome this difficulty, a rather large amount of self-regulation within lakes has to be accepted following the initial change. It is, in fact, this self-regulation that is of major interest in the sense that it defines what is and what is not controllable.

    An example from the ELA may help to make this clear. Lake 227 was enriched with 6.29 g N and 0.48 g P per square meter per year from 1969 to 1974, corresponding to a N/P (atomic) ratio of 29.1. The loading rate of P remained constant from 1969 to 1995, but the N/P ratio (atomic) was reduced to 11.1 in 1975, and to 0 in 1990. The initial response to nutrient enrichment (1969-74) was increased abundance of various types of phytoplanktonic algae, particularly chlorophytes, also including some nonheterocystous Cyanobacteria. Increased transport of carbon dioxide from air to water was observed, largely due to the low dissolved inorganic carbon levels in the ELA lakes. In 1975, heterocystous (nitrogen-fixing) Cyanobacteria, particularly Aphanizomenon, dramatically increased in abundance with variable numbers in different years. After 1989 increased abundance of heterocystous Cyanobacteria was consistently high. These observed lake responses were regulated more by external nutrient loading than by internal nutrient loading. The results clearly showed that only phosphorus, and neither nitrogen nor carbon, could be made to control the growth of Cyanobacteria. While, some of these results can be said to be predictable in retrospect, the irrefutable proof came from the whole lake experiment.

    THE VARIETY OF STUDIES AT THE ELA: first topic previous topic next topic last topic

    Initially, the ELA was designed to evaluate the most efficient and cost-effective measures for the control of eutrophication in the lower Great Lakes. This was at a time when some investigators (for example, authors of the "Lange-Kuentzel-Kerr" hypothesis) claimed that carbon was key to the cause and cure of eutrophication. Others claimed that nitrogen limited the growth of algae to a greater extent than phosphorus. An 8-year experiment on Lake 226 (a "figure-8-shaped" lake with the two basins separated by a vinyl sea-curtain) showed conclusively that the lower SW basin (enriched with C, as sucrose; N, as sodium nitrate; and P, as phosphoric acid) produced greater phytoplankton blooms than the upper NE basin (enriched with similar amounts of C and N alone). Furthermore blooms of nitrogen-fixing Cyanobacteria were essentially limited to the lower SW basin (which received P in addition to C and N). A spectacular photo from a helicopter showed the NE basin as black and the SW basin as green. Significantly, after nutrient enrichment ceased, both basins reverted to domination by chrysophytes as was typical of two control lakes (Lakes 224, 239) studied throughout the experimental period (1973-1980).

    Other whole lake studies have included radionuclide experiments to track chemical cycling, air-water exchange of gases, and water movements; hypolimnetic addition of nutrients; impacts of and recovery from acidification; biomanipulation (introduction of pike); effects of reservoir construction in increasing the transfer of methane and methyl mercury from water to air; toxic effects of metals (Al and Cd); habitat disruption; organic toxicants; interactive effects of thinning of the ozone layer, global climate change and acid rain; the effects of two major forest fires in the area; and a variety of studies on paleolimnology, benthos, littoral processes, and the development of new methodologies. Many of the collective results of these studies have been published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences: Vol. 30 (10): 1409-1552 (1973); Vol. 37(3): 311-558 (1980); Vol. 44 (Suppl. No. 1): 3-274 (1987); Vol. 51 (10): 2243-2332 (1994); Vol. 51 (12): 2721-2807 (1994); and Vol. 52(10):2211-2295 (1995).

    While operational funding for the ELA is mostly supplied by the FWI, nearly 50% has come from outside sources, including academic research, international agencies, private donations, and educational functions. University-based researchers have come from Manitoba, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Kansas, New York, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The enthusiastic participation of geochemists from the Lamont-Dougherty Geological Observatory was a major factor in the development of the ELA. Work at the ELA has resulted in more than 500 primary publications, nearly 100 M.Sc and Ph.D. theses, and collaboration with 13 Canadian universities, 20 foreign universities, and six government agencies. Clearly it is a unique, globally accessible facility. Up-to-date information is available at:

    PLUSES AND MINUSES: first topic previous topic next topic last topic

    The first clear sign of things to come was the severance in 1969 by the Honorable Jack Davis, Minister of Fisheries, of the employer-employee relationship between the FRB and its staff. Overnight, employees of the FRB became public servants, ruled by a more bureaucratic set of governmental procedures than they had been used to under the more science-congenial FRB. Nevertheless, the FRB retained its legislated responsibility in setting the priorities and policy for work at its laboratories. Then, in 1973, the 75th year of its existence, the Fisheries Research Board of Canada was relieved of direct control over its research programs and facilities, and became a wholly advisory body. In 1979 the Fisheries Research Board Act, an act of Parliament, was repealed, dissolving the FRB as an advisory body. This unfortunate train of events came about primarily as a result of three influences: an "Iago" seeking greater power in a re-organized Department of Fisheries and Oceans, jealousy on the part of a federal Minister over the independent power of the Chairman of the FRB, and the rapid growth of the FRB in the 1950s and 1960s by which it became the victim of its own successes.

    Dr. F.R. Hayes (1973), Chairman of the FRB from 1964 to 1969, put all this succinctly in his book, The Chaining of Prometheus: "This will not immediately affect the work of the laboratories but the Honorary Board becomes a dead duck. .... The government simply cannot contemplate the control of policy and funds by anyone but its own employees." It would be difficult to document, causally, the link between the demise of the FRB and the demise of the Atlantic cod fishery in 1991 (a major fishery that has not yet recovered); but if F.R. Hayes were to be resuscitated from his tomb today, it is very sure he would not hesitate to make the link.

    J.R.Vallentyne resigned as Scientific Leader of the Eutrophication Section in 1972 to become Senior Scientist at the FWI and in 1974 left the FWI on a one-year leave-of-absence for a yearlong course as part of the National Defence College of Canada. Since this was a training course for senior members of government, industry, and society at large, he felt obliged to offer his services temporarily to the new Department of Fisheries and the Environment in Ottawa, served for a year as advisor to Art Collin, Deputy Minister, and then for an additional year as advisor to J.R. Weir, Chairman of the defunct FRB. The latter year was one of the most miserable, gut-grinding years of his life. It was like participating in a yearlong funeral of a remarkable organization. Toward the end of the year he repeatedly asked to return to the FWI, but the new Director - "an old college friend" - did not want him to return, perhaps because he considered J.R.Vallentyne a threat to his authority. Eventually, Murray Johnson, head of the biology group at CCIW arranged to have J.R.Vallentyne transferred to CCIW, which was welcomed in spite of his continued attachment to the FWI, for in Burlington he found himself in the centre of Canada's "Golden Horse-shoe" with a charge to change the course of human society in one of the most overdeveloped parts of the Earth.

    Andy Hamilton left the FWI in 1978 to become senior environmental advisor to the IJC in Ottawa. In 1989, David Schindler who, according to several outside observers, felt increasingly frustrated by entrapment in bureaucratic entanglements, happily accepted a position as Killam Professor of Biology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton where he has remained ever since - occasionally returning to the ELA to supervise graduate students working there. Bob Hecky, the first of four Project Leaders to replace Schindler up to 2001, left the FWI in 1997 for CCIW and later left CCIW for the University of Waterloo. Gregg Brunskill went to the Australian Institute of Science to work on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. E.J. Fee left for Alberta where, as an occasional mountain climber, he works as free-lancer and research associate at the University of Calgary.

    In March 1990 the Rawson Academy of Aquatic Science sponsored a workshop to spell out a plan for the future of the ELA. Although ambitious and forward-looking, it failed to persuade any of the potentially interested parties to take a lead in rescuing the ELA from death through attrition. A high point came in 1991 when David Schindler was awarded the first Stockholm Water Prize for integrative studies with his willingly (though occasionally begrudgingly) overworked collaborators at ELA. In the early 1990s a "Memorandum of Intent for Rationalization and Transfer of Responsibilities between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Department of the Environment" was prepared; but it did nothing to rescue the ELA. Its only result was to alert the Department of Environment to "peacocks" of the FWI that could be picked off for transfer one by one. In the mid- to late-1990s an attempt was made to interest a consortium of universities to band together on a "Wood's Hole model" to support ELA in common interest. That too failed.

    In spite of all this and two tombstones that have appeared at the ELA - one laid by two ELA workers after a 1980 forest fire that came close to devastating the renowned facility, and the other laid by J.R.Vallentyne in 1998 as tribute to the spirit that had enabled the co-workers at the ELA to survive the troubles of the 1990s, the ELA lives on. Finally, on the positive side, four new positions were created in 1998 for research scientists - an unprecedented event in a long, drawn-out period of austerity that has taken a devastating toll on the ELA over the past 20 years. And a new and vastly increased area (700 square metres) for laboratory facilities has been constructed by the federal Department of Public Works.

    The ELA lives, and will live forever in the minds and memories of all its creators - including the governments of the United States and Canada through the International Joint Commission.

    REFERENCES first topic previous topic next topic last topic

    Hayes, F.R., 1973. The Chaining of Prometheus: Evolution of a Power Structure for Canadian Science. Toronto. Johnstone, Kenneth. 1977. The Aquatic Explorers: A History of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada. xv + 342 pp. University of Toronto Press: Toronto and Buffalo.

    Address: first topic previous topic

    Scientist Emeritus,
    Canada Centre for Inland Waters,
    P.O. Box 5050,
    Ontario L7R 4A6,