‘His presence is everywhere’: Ecologist David Schindler remembered by Experimental Lakes scientist

David Schindler, a world-famous fighter for Canada’s fresh waters, is leaving a legacy of a big personality and even bigger ideas, according to his successor at the Experimental Lakes Area.

Schindler died on Thursday. He was 80 years old.

For more than 20 years until 1989, Schindler headed the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) project in Ontario, just over the Manitoba border, where he conducted original research into the role of phosphorus in fish-killing algae blooms at the freshwater research facility.

But his work didn’t stop in the ’80s, says Mike Paterson, who took over for Schindler and is currently the senior research scientist at the Institute for Sustainable Development’s ELA.

“Dave’s research was incredibly broad. He worked on almost every every topic of importance to fresh water in Canada during his career,” Paterson said on CBC Radio’s Up to Speed program on Friday.

“I can’t even begin to catalogue all the work that Dave did.”

Mike Paterson is the chief research scientist at the Experimental Lakes Area. He says every decision he makes, he wonders if David Schindler would approve. (Bartley Kives/CBC)

From the 1970s onward, his large-scale, landmark experiments sounded the alarm on acid rain and risks to bodies of freshwater, and his efforts brought about real change.

Schindler’s research led the federal government to ban high-phosphorus laundry detergents. 

He is a recipient of the Order of Canada and numerous scientific awards, including the inaugural Stockholm Water Prize. 

In 2010, Schindler conducted research into Alberta’s oilsands that pushed the government to establish independent oversight of the industry, after he showed it was contributing contaminants to the region’s watershed.

“He was always driven to get the best results, to bring about change. And if you look at his history, he did that,” Paterson said.

Although the two men did not work at IISD at the same time, Paterson said he spoke with Schindler often, and his predecessor was still very involved.

“For anybody that goes to the Experimental Lakes Area, his presence is everywhere. As the head scientist for many years in the ELA, every decision I made, I couldn’t help but worry about whether Dave would approve,” Patterson said.

“His shadow hangs over everything.”