This Is What We Do—and Why...

In a time of growing populations and a rapidly changing climate, our nations are struggling to respond to challenges to their fresh water.


These challenges include the impacts of climate change, agricultural runoff, water management, contaminants such as mercury and organic pollutants, and a growing list of new chemical substances.


IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA) is an exceptional natural laboratory comprised of 58 small lakes and their watersheds set aside for scientific research.





Located in a sparsely populated region of northwestern Ontario, Canada, the lakes in the region are unaffected by human impacts. By manipulating these small lakes, scientists are able to examine how all aspects of the ecosystem—from the atmosphere to fish populations—respond. Findings from these real-world experiments are often much more accurate than those from research conducted at smaller scales, such as in laboratories.


This unique research approach has influenced billion-dollar decisions of governments and industries. It has generated more cost-effective environmental policies, regulations, and management, all to ensure the safety of our freshwater supplies.


The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) is now proud to operate this world-class facility. Since we took over operation in 2014, we have already initiated new ecosystem-based science, responding to today’s threats to our water; collaborations and partnerships with outside researchers and universities; and educational activities that promote and build capacity for freshwater science and policy action in Canada and around the world.


IISD’s independent, evidence-based approach to the development of policy recommendations and tools complements the facility’s strong scientific foundation. IISD and the ELA work together to strengthen efforts to address global freshwater issues by directly applying world-class scientific research to create innovative policy solutions for regional and global water management.


Download the IISD Experimental Lakes Area brochure here.

A unique facility! Nothing like it in the world.

Margaret Atwood, Canadian poet and novelist


The Freshwater Institute is established

The Fisheries Research Board of Canada established the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg in 1966. One of the priorities for this research facility was to investigate the eutrophication (or “algal bloom”) problem plaguing many lakes across North America, inlcuding Lake Erie. W.E. (Wally) Johnson, the first director of the FWI, assembled an international team of research scientists under the leadership of Jack Vallentyne to address this problem.


Site selection for the Experimental Lakes Area

Extensive surveys were conducted in 1966 and 1967 to select a suitable site for the proposed Experimental Lakes Area. In northwestern Ontario, 463 lakes were surveyed on the ground and by helicopter to determine lakes of sufficient depth and area. In 1968, the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, who controlled the area as Crown land, agreed to designate the watersheds of 46 small lakes as the Experimental Lakes Area—a number which ultimately grew, over the years, to 58 lakes and their watersheds.


Experimental Lakes Area officially opens

The Experimental Lakes Area was a truly original concept—and it continues to be. The discipline of experimenting on whole lakes and their watersheds to understand the impacts of human activity on fresh water, and to use that scientific knowledge to influence practice and policy, has had an incredible impact on environmental policies worldwide for over 50 years.


Incredible research takes place that changes freshwater policy around the world

From algal blooms to acid rain, from 1968 to 2014, a great deal of research on real lakes took place to change how we understand the impact of human activity on fresh water and to influence environmental policy around the world.


IISD saves the Experimental Lakes Area

In April 2014, IISD, the Government of Ontario, and the Government of Canada signed three agreements to ensure that the facility would continue to operate.


A new era

And ever since, we have been conducting new research on everything from plastics to oil spills, have (literally and figuratively) opened our doors to the world, and are not showing any signs of slowing down or stopping.


The lakes turn 50!

Fifty years had now lapsed since we cut the ribbon on the world’s freshwater laboratory. We celebrated in style by reconnecting with old friends and making plans for the future.

We offer tailored presentations

Interested in our work? Presentations from IISD-ELA are adaptable and can be tailored to various audiences interested in a range of issues related to freshwater science.

In-School and Community Presentations