Bernie Fowler has been running most of his life.
As a child, he ran a mile to get milk for his mother. He ran track in high school, on a crude oval through the woods. He ran for office, first for Calvert County commissioner, then for state senator.
At age 56, he became a senior Olympian, eventually winning 100 gold medals, 38 silvers and 17 bronzes.
And when he wasn’t running, he was still using his feet, wading into his beloved Patuxent River in coveralls and a cowboy hat adorned with an American flag to see how deep he could get and still make out his white sneakers.
Now, at 92, the man born Clyde Bernard Fowler — but known to everyone as just “Bernie” — is not running anymore. After 25 years in politics — 12 years as a Calvert County commissioner, and a dozen more as a state senator representing Southern Maryland — the genteel politician with the never-give-up disposition and the presidential handshake is slowing down. He still stretches and does a short treadmill workout. But he does not have a training plan. His legs are not what they used to be.
Nor is the Patuxent. The river that he has been fighting to revive for more than 40 years still gasps for life, struggling with a decline in Bay grasses, low levels of dissolved oxygen, algae blooms and poor water clarity. Since 2006, the first year the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science began grading the ecological health of the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers, the Patuxent has never scored above a D; most years, it earned a D minus for its poor condition.
But Fowler, who keeps a sign chiseled with the words “Never, never, never give up” in his house, is still pushing for improvement.
“This river is my life and I will continue to fight for it as long as I have breath in my body,” Fowler said. “It’s not about me living long enough to see it cleaned up, although I really thought I was going to.”
Fowler never thought the river cleanup would be a sprint. Though impatient and occasionally frustrated by bureaucratic delays, the lean, 6-foot-tall Broomes Island native was resigned to a marathon. What he seems to have gotten instead is a relay, running back and forth from the offices of state and federal officials and various courtrooms, asking for laws and limits on pollution to save the 110-mile river that once was lined with oyster houses where workers sang spirituals as they shucked.
To the people of Southern Maryland, Fowler brought back promises, court victories, hope. But there were no first-place finishing ribbons for the river, no medals to celebrate its restoration to the 12-foot-deep water clarity and thriving fisheries Fowler recalls from his youth.
Few would call that a victory. But Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, is not ready to say Fowler lost.
“Bernie did succeed,” she said. “He set the pace for sewage treatment plants across the state and the watershed. He started it, and he didn’t stop until it was done. He became an icon for the Chesapeake. But he is not just a good-looking man with an American flag in his hat. He actually pulled off policies. Without him, and what he did, we would have been far worse.”
Fowler’s race began nearly 40 years ago, when as Calvert County commissioner he led the three Southern Maryland counties in a lawsuit against the state and federal government. They charged that the governments were allowing too much untreated sewage from upstream suburban counties into the Patuxent, killing the oysters, crabs and fish. If the Patuxent is lost, he warned, so is the Chesapeake Bay, the very heart of Maryland. The counties won, and a federal judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency and the state to come up with a new plan for reducing the nutrient pollution fouling the river.
Many officials still believed the court-ordered solution was both prohibitively costly and unwarranted, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. So, to resolve the dispute, Fowler joined an unusual three-day “charrette” of intense negotiations, where the conflicting parties hammered out an agreement on how to proceed with cleaning up the Patuxent. That same approach of bringing all sides together was later applied in crafting a pact for restoring the Bay, and that consensus-seeking spirit continues to infuse the state-federal Bay Program partnership.
Fowler also successfully pressed to get Calvert County to stop discharging wastewater from its treatment plants into the river, because even treated they were adding to the nutrient pollution. To this day, all of the sewage plants in Calvert spray their effluent onto land, where plants soak up the nutrients. Fowler then made a plan to “Keep Calvert Country,” and restrict the growth that followed the construction of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in the 1970s.
In 1983, Fowler was elected a senator, and the push to clean up both the Patuxent and the Chesapeake seemed to be gaining traction. Under then-Gov. Harry Hughes, the first Bay restoration agreement was signed, and Maryland enacted the “Critical Area” law restricting development close to the shoreline.
In 1988, though, with the river still ailing, Fowler started the first Patuxent River Wade In, a folksy event in which he dons overalls, the flag cowboy hat and the same white sneakers and joins hands with those present to walk into the river. In the 1950s, he recalled, he could still see his toes when he was chest-deep in the water to net crabs. Tallies of water clarity during his annual wade-ins, called the Sneaker Index, don’t always stack up with the science. But lately they do offer some hope — last year, it reached 44.5 inches — the best since 1997.
The wade in is always the second Sunday in June; it features schoolchildren singing Chesapeake Bay songs and politicians bearing promises — some so anxious for election-year publicity they have nudged children aside to hold Fowler’s hand for the ritual newspaper photographs. The event has prompted similar wade ins throughout the Bay watershed.
Fowler will wade in again this year, his wife, Betty, by his side as she has been throughout their 67-year marriage. Some of his four children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren will come, too. Again, politicians likely will speak — though none has given Fowler what he wants most: Turn the Patuxent into a model for how to fix a river.
Fowler can’t blame the upstream counties anymore. In the 1990s, Calvert was the fastest-growing county in Maryland. Though growth rates have slowed some since then, new home signs dot the landscape and Route 2 is congested with Washington, DC, commuters.
Fowler said he believes his rural Calvert plan is holding, for now, but he acknowledged that developers are circling, and few politicians can resist their generous campaign contributions. Though Maryland passed a flush fee a decade ago that paid for upgrades at most large wastewater plants, Fowler is concerned that the state and federal limits allow for too much discharge to accommodate growth. He has raised the issue with scientists, who agree with him, and policy-makers, whom he says acknowledged him but haven’t made any changes.
“There are a lot of broken promises that the government has made to his river,” said Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman, who considers Fowler a friend and mentor. “In a way, that’s one of [Bernie’s] biggest values. He remembers. He was present in the room where these various deals were made, where the promises weren’t kept. He did not get what he deserved.”
While Tutman prefers to work outside of the environmental establishment, filing lawsuits and challenging the state’s permitting authority, Fowler these days is more a part of it. He’s a longtime citizen member of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, the tri-state body that advises legislators on sound environmental policy. The Maryland General Assembly honored him earlier this year, as did legislatures in Pennsylvania and Virginia. The University of Maryland scientists at Solomons, who helped him win those early lawsuits named a laboratory after him.
Fowler has so many awards and memorabilia that the Calvert Marine Museum curators recently came to his basement to collect them all for an exhibit on his life. They took 1,244 items. His running medals, Fowler said, will go to the new Calvert High School, where he hopes they inspire a new generation of strivers.
Harry Hughes, the former governor who embraced Fowler’s crusade to clean up the Patuxent and the Bay, is 89 now, but many others who started the journey with him decades ago are gone. Tom Wisner, the Bard of the Chesapeake who wrote “Chesapeake Born” and sang it at the wade ins, died in 2010. So did Charles “Mac” Mathias, the Republican U.S. senator who on a 5-day, 450-mile tour around the Bay in 1973, stopped to see Fowler, promising to help put focus on the river and followed through to birth the modern-day cleanup effort. Gone also are all but one of Fowler’s four brothers, all but four high-school classmates, and Paul Jacob Bailey, the fire-in-the-belly Republican state senator who told Fowler all those years ago that he needed to “sue the bastards” or nothing would ever change.
A religious man, Fowler used to talk about himself as Moses, with a revived Patuxent River as his Promised Land. But 40 years have passed, he noted; he has been wandering in the ecological desert longer than the Israelites.
Now he talks instead about Notre Dame, the iconic Gothic cathedral in Paris. It took 125 years to build, he said, but when it was finished, it looked just like the plan had promised.
True to the sign he looks at daily, Fowler won’t ever give up. But someone else will have to pick up the baton and see the river to its finish line.
“It’s not important that Bernie Fowler and Harry Hughes live that long,” he said. “It’s important that the plan we put in place materializes and makes the Chesapeake Bay the jewel that it was once again.”