After 17 years of wading into the Patuxent River, Bernie Fowler still can’t get where he wants.

As the 80-year-old Fowler walked out of the river after his annual “wade-in,” U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer measured the high water mark on Fowler’s pants, and read of the verdict: 31.5 inches. And that was likely an overestimate. “The wave level was a little high,” the congressman acknowledged.”

“It’s not where we want to be,” Fowler said after the June 13 event. “We’re still looking for that 61 inches.”

That’s roughly how far Fowler could see into the water during his youth, when he could wade chest-high into the river and clearly see crabs scurrying among the underwater grass beds. He created the annual wade-in 1987 to draw attention to the continued plight of the river and the Chesapeake Bay.

This year’s event marked the 25th anniversary of efforts to clean the Patuxent. Some progress has been made—Fowler got only 10 inches deep at his first wade-in, but his high water mark of 44.5 inches, which he reached in 1997, is still far short of the goal.

The Patuxent—and the attempts to clean it up—are viewed as a microcosm of the Bay as a whole. “What happens to this Patuxent River also happens to the Chesapeake Bay,” Fowler reminded more than 200 people who gathered for this year’s event.

After decades of work, neither is where many thought they would be by now.

“We said when we started the Bay Program that it wasn’t going to change overnight, it would take at least 10 years,” said former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, who was governor when the state committed itself to cleaning up the Patuxent 25 years ago, and helped to create the state-federal Bay Program to clean up the Chesapeake two decades ago.

“Well, it’s 20 years now,” Hughes said. “We haven’t gotten the job done. The only positive thing we can say is that the water would probably be a lot worse if we hadn’t done what we have done all these years.”

This year, Fowler had asked speakers to bring new commitments to get the job done. The string of speakers that presided at the wade-in brought few of those, but did pledge a bipartisan effort to clean up the river.

Indeed, Fowler—a former Democratic state senator—dedicated this year’s event to the memory of former President Ronald Reagan, who called the Bay a “national treasure” in his 1984 State of the Union address and formalized federal participation in the cleanup effort.

And some see a glimmer of hope in that cooperation. Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich and the Democrat-controlled state legislature for passing the so-called $2.50 per household “flush tax,” which will provide significant new financing for Bay cleanup efforts.

“I’m going to make a prediction—that the year 2004 is the tipping point at which we start to see real progress made on the Chesapeake Bay,” Baker said.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, saluted Ehrlich on the flush tax, calling it a “bold” action. “The Chesapeake Bay does not belong to a political party,” the Democratic senator said. “The Chesapeake Bay belongs to all of us, and this is why all of us need to be able to work together. I do think we are doing it.”

Ehrlich, who last year became the first sitting governor to attend Fowler’s wade-in, committed himself to continue showing up for the event. The governor noted that, to demonstrate he was serious about efforts to restore the Bay, Fowler had been his guest at this year’s Sate of the State address.

“This administration is serious about cleaning up this river, this estuary and not just maintaining an uneven status quo,” Ehrlich said.

He acknowledged that many lawmakers had been able to bridge partisan and philosophical differences to support the cleanup effort this year. “There is one common denominator,” Ehrlich said. “It is the Bay, it is our future. We are committed to the future of this Bay.”