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Deep in northwestern Ontario is a collection of 58 small, pristine lakes where, for the past half century, scientists worried about water have gathered to take their laboratory outside. This is the world’s largest outdoor experimental freshwater research facility, allowing scientists to develop invaluable long-term data about the effects of pollutants, clean-up processes and climate change on a finite resource.
Known as the International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area, the 27,000-hectare area is covered in thousands of little lakes set in bedrock and bordered by thick spruce and pine forests. It’s in Treaty 3 territory, and visitors who aren’t from an Indigenous community require a permit to use the lone gravel road that leads up to the water bodies. Together, the experimental lakes tell a story of the challenges facing Canada’s fresh water and provide a glimpse into what solutions might be possible.
They’re also of global importance: every year, data requests pour in from academics from around the world, making the experimental lakes a crucial research connection between bacterial pathogens in Spain to algae blooms in western Ontario and beyond.
“When an oil spill happens, when a pipeline ruptures, it happens in an area that likely hasn’t been well studied — the system isn’t well understood,” institute biologist Lauren Timlick said. “They go in and they clean it up as best they can, but how can they be positive that they’re bringing it back to normal if they don’t know what normal was to begin with?”
“There could be an entire species that is extirpated” — or locally extinct — “that they didn’t know was there,” Timlick, who focuses on ecotoxicology, said. “So our studies rely on this long-term dataset — this 50-plus years of data that we have for our climate change and ecological monitoring.”
The research facility first opened in 1968 because algae blooms were choking out oxygen and killing fish in Lake Erie. The cause was poorly understood, especially since multiple pollutants running to the lake from farms, cities and industrial zones made it difficult to pinpoint which one was responsible for triggering the blooms.
Believing that whole-lake experiments might uncover the root issue, scientists came across this spot about two hours’ drive from Kenora, Ont.
And so, the naturally occurring lakes became experimental, as the scientists added different nutrients to different lakes to figure out what conditions led to strong algal growth. The result was the identification of high phosphorus inputs as a key factor driving algae blooms — and an iconic photograph that showed Lake 226, as it was dubbed, covered in a blanket of bright green algae from phosphorus.
The image convinced policymakers that phosphorus should be controlled, with the Canadian and U.S. governments passing legislation to ban phosphates in detergents in the 1970s.
“It’s one of the most famous limnological experiments in the world,” said researcher Scott Higgins of the Lake 226 project, referring to the study of inland water bodies. He added that the image is still used in textbooks around the world.
The Lake 226 project cascaded into research covering issues from phytoplankton to whitefish populations, underlining the value of real-world experiments and sparking an appetite for science-based policy. But after many successful, productive decades, the value of such rigorous study came into question. In 2014, the experimental lakes area was at risk of closing when the Stephen Harper government threatened to cut its funding. Although outrage from the scientific community and the public saved the project, it took a year for the government to agree to transfer the facilities to the International Institute of Sustainable Development.
A think-tank based in Winnipeg with offices in Ontario and Geneva, the institute has more than 250 full-time staff worldwide, focused on five different program areas. About 40 are based at the experimental lakes area, supported by a mixture of government funding, research grants, non-profit funds and individual donors.
Since its adoption by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the experimental lakes project has put greater emphasis on public education and collaboration. With the support of Indigenous co-ordinator Dilber Yunis, it has begun partnerships with Grand Council Treaty #3 and nearby Sagkeeng First Nation and Eagle Lake First Nation, including monitoring projects and research into wild rice cultivation. Another initiative translates environmental information into the Ojibwe language, also known as Anishinaabemowin: Yunis helped translate “carbon dioxide” as “mitigoo-inanaamowin,” which means “(the air that) the trees breathe.” It’s a translation that shifts thinking away from a singular chemical compound towards an ecosystem level, based on relationships between beings.
Laura Horton, whose Anishinaabe name is Gini’w’ikwe, is a Dene Anishinaabe Elder from Rainy River First Nations, born and raised in Treaty 3 territory. A retired teacher, she first got to know the experimental lakes area by leading water offering ceremonies on site with the women’s council of Grand Council Treaty #3.
At the time, the women’s council was working on a collective sacred Nibi Declaration — nibi being the word for water in Anishinaabemowin — meant to formally record Anishinaabe water law and guide the Grand Council as it made decisions that could affect water.
“My work is primarily in the spiritual nature, lifting water and talking about how we make offerings to the water — what we do, why we do it, who she is, what her name is, some of the teachings about where she comes from and how it is we’re supposed to take care of her — and what a poor job we’re doing,” Horton said.
“If we didn’t have the water, we would not have life. Just the same as if there was no sun, and those two come together in balance. She’s sacred,” she said. “It isn’t the land that connects us. It’s the water that connects us and surrounds us and holds us in beauty.”
Horton recalls a drummer at a water ceremony circle sharing stories of fishing with his grandparents — back then, they could dip their cups and drink right from local lakes and rivers. That’s no longer possible because of pollutants from paper and pulp mills. “All of a sudden, you get a newsletter saying that we’re on a water advisory alert. And two years go by, and we’re still drinking water delivered to our door,” Horton said.
She believes the amounts of pollutants introduced at the experimental lakes area are “microscopic” compared to the level of industrial pollution in the lakes near her home, and that the research is part of a greater search for solutions to clean and protect fresh water.
“The changes are happening fast, within our lifetime … The waters are so sick because of human behaviours. We need to act to make amends and do better. Working together, spiritually, mentally, physically, socially and emotionally is a step in the right direction,” she said.
The sicknesses threatening fresh water are many. Recent experiments at the lakes include testing the impacts of acid rain, coal-fired power plant mercury and pharmaceuticals including birth control and anti-depressant pills. Other projects have focused on better understanding oil spills, microplastics and — particularly after the germophobia sparked by COVID-19 — disinfectant compounds from cleaning products.
“A lot of times in science, we try to simplify things and ask questions in a beaker in a lab — which is very valuable and it provides a lot of information, but there’s always that question of what happens in the real world when everything is working together … All the pieces, all the elements, all the living organisms working together,” institute researcher Jose Luis Rodriguez Gil said.
“What happens with those interactions? And the only way to actually know about that is to actually look at the real world and have those interactions happen,” Rodriguez Gil said. “The little set-ups that we deploy in the lakes allows us to ask exactly that.”
In the first year of a project, a pilot study uses land-based microcosms — which resemble large bathtubs on land — to better understand how contaminants behave when introduced to fresh water. In the second stage, large enclosures are placed in a lake to observe how the contaminants may react in a real-world setting. Last comes a lake-level dosing of the contaminant, in order to get the big picture.
To protect the long-term health of the water, research proposals must include a contingency plan and a long-term monitoring plan to return the lake to its natural state. Experiments are simulations, not replications, of the real world: since contaminants are typically introduced to the lakes in small amounts, remediation for most projects can be achieved naturally by stopping the addition of new chemicals or manipulations.
Oil spill experiments are different: rather than dosing an entire lake, researchers carefully contain how oil is released into studied areas, both by limiting the amount of oil and isolating it from the rest of the lake. Absorbent booms are installed around the isolated areas and at the lake outflow to protect against leakages. Leftover oil is removed once the study is completed.
Another strength of Ontario’s experimental lakes area is researchers’ ability to capture accurate data across long stretches of time — which could be particularly helpful in illuminating the effects of climate change as it unfolds across decades, even as its impacts become more immediate.
One team is tasked with collecting information such as number of fish, water quality and ice thickness on a weekly basis from lakes that remain unmanipulated. The most dramatic change they’ve noted is ice loss: ice is forming later and thinner than in the past, and lasts for shorter periods during the winter than it used to.
As the effects of changes such as algal growth and ice loss compound, some species of fish may be impacted, such as lake trout, which require cold temperatures and highly oxygenated water to survive. For northern communities that often use ice roads for essential transportation and supplies, their way of living through the winter may be transformed permanently.
“One of the main things that we do out here, that impacts all of Canada, is research into climate change as a northern country. We’re going to be on the receiving end of some of the most extreme swings of climate change, so having a dataset that’s over 50 years long, that can really help us understand how those trends are moving and hopefully present that information to policymakers,” Timlick said.
This year’s federal budget saw Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeat his pledge to establish the Canada Water Agency in Winnipeg, meant to be a collaborative “federal focal point for freshwater,” from the Great Lakes to the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories. It’s one sign of Canadians’ growing awareness that safeguarding our freshwater ecosystems is critical to the future of wildlife and habitat, as well as communities that depend on freshwater ecosystems. In a country that has access to upwards of 20 per cent of the world’s surface fresh water, that means all of us.
Though few details about the agency have been released yet, its creation gives Elder Horton hope. In October, she attended a fall feast with experimental lakes area researchers, and said conversations there lead her to think that Treaty 3’s Nibi Declaration and water ceremonies have reframed how others think about water, leading them to a lens of respect and care.
She’s excited for shared knowledge and connections to bloom into more partnerships, with young people from the Treaty 3 communities becoming scientists themselves, harmonizing their teachings with Western research and finding more holistic answers to protect water — an issue that connects us all.
“[It’s about] always ending with: what else can we do to build relationships? What are the truths that we have about the water in our area and how can we reconcile the pollution, the injustices of the water and make sure that we’re paying attention to it?” she said.
Updated on Nov. 10, 2023, at 9:14 a.m. ET: This story has been updated to correct which lake was in an iconic photo of experiments into the causes of algae. It is Lake 226, not Lake 227.
Updated on Nov. 20, 2023, at 1:40 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to correct the name of the International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area and to add the word “extirpated,” which had been misheard as “excavated” in a quote.
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