Gray Palmer knows a thing or two about rivers

'I've never seen the lake so low,' says 81-year-old who spent most of his life on banks of Tay
Ron Corbett
The Ottawa Citizen
February 19, 2003
Gray Palmer has lived on the banks of the Tay River for most of his 81 years and says he has never seen the water so low. He urges authorities to slow down a bit. 'We don't know' what the loss of that much water will do to the river, he says.
Gray Palmer climbs down from his tractor and says, sure, he has time to talk. Not much plowing to do today anyway. Just a dusting of snow overnight, and he's taken care of that, so there's not much to do, really, until lunch.

So he starts to talk, with a small terrier barking at his feet. And he says right away there's a funny thing he can't figure out, and he's read all the news stories about the Tay River and the plans by Swiss multinational OMYA to take 4.5 million litres of water a day from the river. Read them all.

"But where do you think they're going to get the water from?" he says, a puzzled look crossing his face.

"What do you mean?"

"Look, you can see for yourself," says Mr. Palmer, and he points with his finger to the back of his home, where the Tay River hooks up with Christie Lake. "I've never seen the lake so low."


"In all my years, son, never. God's truth." And Mr. Palmer goes on to say that's saying something. He's lived here off and on, on the banks of the Tay River, for most of his 81 years. The family home -- a nice, stone place -- is just down the road on the left. He bought this house, a summer cottage at the time, 35 years ago and has lived in it since. You can pretty near fish off his back deck, he's so close to the river.

"There won't be much of a run-off this year, either," he goes on to say. "We haven't had the snow." He shakes his head and mutters something about his "boat-going-to-get-big-banged-up-some" on the rocks, just the way it stands, and now they're talking about draining 4.5 million litres of water a day from the river.

"I don't know what they're doing down there," he says, and he jerks his head down river, toward the town of Perth, and the sprawling OMYA factory five kilometres further along.

You have to see that factory to appreciate how out of place it seems out here. It towers above the spruce and the runt pine, just off Highway 7, brand new white and blue columns, towers, and warehouses, surrounded by fences and signs that say all visitors must report to a guard house. It is said you can see the factory on a clear day from as far as 80 kilometres away. There is no avoiding its presence. It has landed like some sort of space ship.

The company's mine, near the town of Clayton, to the north of Perth, is just as conspicuous. It also is visible from a highway. It is here that OMYA digs up the calcium carbonate it reduces to a sludge in its factory.

The sludge is used to make paper and paint and other products.

Two hundred trucks a day are already on the road transporting the calcium carbonate to the factory. With the increased water limits, the number could triple.

So, it's hard to avoid OMYA around Perth and the Tay River these days. It has become the industrial equivalent of a feudal lord.

A very rich and powerful feudal lord. Or as Mr. Palmer puts it -- "That company's got more money than Carter's got pills." Because of the wealth, the company's latest victory, although it came as a surprise to many, came as no surprise to Mr. Palmer. Nor, and he wants this put in the story, does he begrudge the company the water.

He says he knows what business is like. He managed the Canadian Tire store in Perth for 12 years. Retired as a salesman from Perth Motors. He doesn't want it thought by anyone that he's anti-business. Not Gray Palmer.

But he's also lived by the Tay River, right at the spot that most maps pinpoint as the river's headwaters, for most of his life and he knows a thing or two about the river.

So people can talk about studies. And someone like provincial cabinet minister Norm Sterling can say you have to go with your best science and your best engineers, and nothing will happen to the Tay.

But the best science today is often refuted next week. And engineers can make mistakes. Tell him it isn't so.

"We should just slow down a little," says Mr. Palmer. "The fact is, we don't know what that much water will do to the river." He looks out behind his house.

"Anyone says that they know, they're a liar."

Ron Corbett can be reached at 596-8813, or by e-mail at .