The Maryland House and Senate honored C. Bernard “Bernie” Fowler Tuesday for his 50 years of work to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Fowler, a former senator representing Southern Maryland as well as a current member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, received the award just one month shy of his 92nd birthday.
The recognition comes after efforts to recognize Fowler in the Virginia and Pennsylvania legislatures, which his commission colleagues put forth this year. Virginia’s resolution called Fowler a “tireless and persistent champion” of restoring the Bay and his beloved Patuxent River, where he nurtured his love of oysters, crabs and lush Bay grasses.
Fowler -- who was in Florida, so his son accepted the award on his behalf -- called the recognition “a very, very humbling experience. It was totally unexpected.”
So iconic in the Bay movement that most people simply call him Bernie, Fowler is a symbol for many of grace and persistence. He began his fight to save the Patuxent River more than 50 years ago, when he noticed declines in oyster, fish and crab populations around the same time that upstream counties, including Howard, were growing. He felt certain that increased growth and more discharges from sewage treatment plants were fouling the river.
When he couldn’t get the regulators' attention through meetings and letters. Fowler, then a Calvert County commissioner, joined with the commissioners of St. Mary’s and Charles counties and sued the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten the treatment plants’ discharge limits.
With the help of researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in Solomons -- who had hard evidence to support the complaint – the counties prevailed. The EPA reduced the plants’ discharge limits for nitrogen and phosphorus. And Fowler helped pass legislation barring sewage discharges from Calvert County into his beloved river. (Treated wastewater is applied to the land instead.)
Then-Gov. Harry Hughes visited the Patuxent, then teeming with oysters, and declared he would work to save it. The scientists at Solomons were so grateful that they named one of their labs in his honor.
Back then, Fowler said, he thought it was possible to restore the river, and perhaps even the whole Bay, in 20 years. Fowler represented Calvert County in the state Senate from 1983 to 1994. Those were heady years for environmental protection. The first Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which Fowler helped inspire, came in 1983; the next year, the legislature passed the Maryland Critical Area law, restricting development close to the shoreline.
To keep the clean-the-river movement going, Fowler began wading into the Patuxent to gauge its health by seeing how deep he could go before losing sight of his feet. Every spring since 1988, he’s donned coveralls and white sneakers and walked hand-in-hand with friends, family and others into the river to find out how clear the water is.
His wade-ins have inspired others to do the same in many communities around the watershed. The Patuxent Wade-in is always the second Sunday in June. This year’s event is scheduled for June 12 at Jefferson Patterson Park.
“Bernie knows the magic of clean water and a productive Chesapeake Bay,” said Ann Swanson, the bay commission’s executive director. “His dedication to the Bay’s protection has been contagious and his disciples are everywhere."
Last year, the Sneaker Index that Fowler pioneered measured 44.5 inches. That was the highest since 1997. But Fowler recalls how when he was a young man, he could stand chest-deep in the river and still see his toes. That 1960s mark he set of 57 inches has become the target for restoring the Patuxent.
The early 2000s were a tough period for both the river and Fowler, who lamented at times that political leaders didn’t seem to have the will to do what was necessary. But by then Fowler could no longer say that all of the pollution came from upstream; Southern Maryland had become one of the fastest growing areas in the state, with both Washington, D.C. commuters and retirement home seekers contributing to the boom.
In the 1980s, when Fowler started his push for the Patuxent, the watershed had a population of 100,000. Today, it is seven times that.
Today’s Fowler’s faith is again strong. President Barack Obama’s 2009 Executive Order calling for greater federal action to restore the Chesapeake, plus other pollution reduction measures -- the Total Maximum Daily Load, the Phosphorus Management Tool and the state’s individual watershed plans -- give him hope that the work will get done, even if it doesn’t meet all of the deadlines.
“Moses, it took him 40 years to travel a short distance, and then poor fellow, he didn’t get to go into the Promised Land,” Fowler said. “I’ve kind of settled on the fact that Bernie Fowler doesn’t need to see it done. My role is to help construct a plan that is irrefutable, and that if we follow that plan, it will happen some day. The date, I’m not sure makes that much of a difference. But I do think if we adhere to the plan, one day, we can kind of thump our chests and say, ‘doggone it, it took a long time, but it was worth it.’”