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Wendy Cooper, Tides Canada Program Officer, visits the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario

Dr. Mike Paterson and Wendy Cooper

Dr. Mike Paterson explaining to Wendy the water flow experiments being conducted on the lake.

By: Wendy Cooper, Program Officer, Tides Canada

I recently visited the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a world-class freshwater research site in northwestern Ontario, where whole-ecosystem studies and long-term monitoring are conducted on 58 small lakes and their watersheds.

The visit was a chance to build on conversations over the past 18 months between Tides Canada staff and some ELA scientists, which led to a well-received ELA presentation in Winnipeg last June for the water funders’ section of the Canadian Environmental Grantmakers’ Network conference. The trip allowed me to experience first-hand what makes the ELA a globally unique facility, explore opportunities for alignment with our grant-making in freshwater and, more broadly, how to use science to inform philanthropy.

The ELA has been unparalleled in developing leaders in freshwater science for the past 45 years. Not only is it a world-class site for research on freshwater, the ELA is also a community of incredible and passionate scientists, staff (and in many cases their families) dedicated to the protection of freshwater resources. The research conducted at ELA has been instrumental in informing the decisions and work of government, NGOs, and industry here in Canada and abroad. Scientific insights from controlled whole-system manipulations have had a significant influence on freshwater management include algal blooms, acid rain, mercury pollution, and the impact of hydro reservoirs.

Arriving on site, I was greeted by Dr. Mike Paterson, ELA’s recently retired Senior Scientist, who led me on a tour of ELA while describing all the intricacies that make this unique research facility tick. We were also joined by Ken Beaty, ELA’s former hydrologist for 30+ years who is still an integral part of their community and a wealth of knowledge on all things ELA.

Dr. Mike Paterson and Wendy Cooper

Mike and Wendy examining radio tag data of fish being monitored to see where they are moving in the lake.

We visited a handful of lakes including those that serve as “reference lakes,” where long-term monitoring of physical lake characteristics, hydrology, water chemistry, and food web relationships serve as a baseline for lakes with experimental “tweaks” of parameters such as phosphorus inputs or water flows. Seeing this collection of lakes and surrounding watersheds from a stunning vantage point near the meteorological station on site, I reflected on the tens of thousands of hours of research that have and continue to inspire so many to commit their life to working on freshwater.

Most strikingly, I was reminded of our responsibility as Canadians to be leaders in the protection of freshwater and the important role that science plays in that regard.

At Tides Canada, our water program is working to foster such leadership by convening “strange bedfellows” around our water work. The program focuses on:

  1. Sustained watershed networks that support tangible outcomes
  2. Watershed-scale management that considers and bridges multiple jurisdictions and sectors
  3. An inclusive water community that engages participants beyond the environmental community.

We coordinate and grant funds to measurably advance these outcomes, and support projects that address the outcomes through our TCI shared platform. ELA-quality science informs all of our work.

To learn more or to support Tides Canada’s water program, please contact Wendy Cooper at

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