Bernie Fowler’s 29th annual Patuxent River Wade-In began Sunday with great optimism. There were prayers, the National Anthem, a beautiful sunny day and a crowd of more than 200 relatives, friends and legislators on hand to see firsthand how clear the water was.
The news has been good lately for the Bay, with reports of increased water clarity, more grass beds and more crabs than have been seen in years. There have also been “report cards” giving the estuary’s ecological health better grades.
But the wind kicked up hard, and Fowler knew his yearly sneaker test was not going to hit the high-water mark. Indeed, the former southern Maryland state senator and longtime river advocate could keep his white sneakers in view in only 31 inches of water. Last year, he could see them until he was 44.5 inches deep in the river, the best score since 1997.
“We need to not rest on our laurels. We need to dig in and move forward,” Fowler said before he walked into the water. “We are fighting a war against pollution. We have not won the war yet.”
The wade-in has never really been about the number on the tape measure. It’s about a commitment - to both the river and to its 92-year-old advocate - to keep up the nearly 50-year fight to restore the Patuxent River to the lush ecosystem it once was. Fowler has been at the forefront of that fight since he and his fellow Calvert County commissioners decided to sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the discharges from sewage treatment plants upstream. The counties won the battle, and it became the foundation for the movement to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Fowler started the wade-in to highlight problems with the river and to press elected officials to show up at the river with commitments to help clean it up. Despite signs of improvement in some areas, the Patuxent remains in poor ecological health, with generally low water clarity and sparse aquatic grasses, according to the most recent assessment by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
What was once a folksy event on Broomes Island, where Fowler grew up, has turned into a catered affair on the grounds of the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, which the state manages. Some years, governors come and promise to redouble their efforts to clean the river and the Chesapeake. Some years - election years - local politicians attend and angle to have their picture taken with Fowler, who wears a cowboy hat with an American flag and jean overalls in homage to his country roots.
This year, Fowler didn’t get the governor there. But he had U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate; Sen. Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, the longtime president of the Maryland Senate; and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, whose congressional district includes southern Maryland.
“Someone said to me, ‘It’s nice that you take time out of your schedule to come here.’ Well, this is the schedule,” Hoyer said. “My staff knows that, every year, on the second Sunday in June, this is where I’ll be.”
Hoyer has been friends with Fowler for 50 years. And no one, Hoyer said, has done more than Fowler to fight for clean water in the region.
Though the wade-in draws hundreds, it feels like a family gathering of close friends and old political hands. That’s fitting, Miller said, because he considered Bernie and Betty Fowler the “First Family of Calvert County” for their commitment to public service and the river.
As befits a reunion of sorts, there were a few jokes. Hoyer shouted that participants were all “feeling the Bern,”, but for the local Bernie and not the Vermont senator vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. Before the wade-in, Miller warned the crowd to take off their watches in case the test defied expectations. He was wearing his Cartier last year, he said, and the person holding his hand didn’t raise their arm enough. For six months, he said, his beloved watch has been in the shop.
Hoyer pointed to his wrist and countered: “Senator, I have a Casio watch. It cost me $19.25. You can buy it on Amazon. I also took it in the water last year. And guess what? It’s doing fine.”
Kelton Clark, the director of Morgan State University’s Patuxent Environmental and Aquatic Research Laboratory, which shares a campus with the park, urged the crowd to stand up for Fowler because “he has stood up for you many times.” They did, chanting, “never, never, never give up,” Fowler’s unofficial motto, which was displayed on the backdrop for the speaker’s podium.
Tom Miller, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, read a quote from Muhammad Ali, who was buried Friday:
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
The lab director then turned to Fowler and said, “We owe a thanks to you, Senator Fowler, for not being that small man, for being the large man who could see change.”