For Bernie Fowler, it started with the loss of grass beds and the long decline of the Patuxent River, where he grew up.

Frustrated that no one was doing much about the problem, he put up $157 of his own money in 1970, ran for county commissioner, and won, launching a political career that ultimately led to the state Senate.

“When you live on a river like that, it becomes a part of you,” Fowler explained.

For Tayloe Murphy, it began with worries about the Potomac River, near where his family had lived for generations, and the birth of his daughter.

If he didn’t work to protect the river for her — and others — who would? He got on the local Planning Commission, and later was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. “I really do want to see the next generation enjoy the benefits that we have been so blessed to have,” he said.

However they came to public service, Fowler, Murphy and three other early leaders of the Chesapeake cleanup effort said the job they started may not be completed — at least not anytime soon — unless today’s politicians show more leadership.

Fowler and Murphy were joined by former Maryland Governor Harry Hughes, former Virginia state Sen. Joseph Gartlan Jr., and Pennsylvania farmer George Wolff —a veteran of numerous panels, committees and commissions dealing with agriculture and water — at an April 7 “Dialogue” in which they reflected on the origins, and the future, of Bay restoration.

The Dialogue was sponsored by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Bay Program and the Washington College Center for Environment and Society.

All of the participants made a mark in the early days of the restoration effort. Hughes oversaw the enactment of the Maryland Critical Areas law, considered a milestone for land use management as it regulated activities within 1,000 feet of the water, and he took the heat for imposing a moratorium on the catch of striped bass when its population hit record lows in the 1980s.

Wolff helped to persuade Pennsylvania to curb agricultural nutrients a decade ago, when concerns were only beginning to emerge. Fowler led a political fight to control nitrogen discharges from wastewater treatment plants at a time when many thought nitrogen wasn’t a problem for the Bay.

Both Gartlan and Murphy assumed leadership roles in moving Bay-related legislation in Virginia, including bills that pushed for the development of tributary nutrient reduction strategies and provided funds to pay for their implementation.

Another early leader, former Maryland U.S. Sen. Mac Mathias, considered the “father” of the Bay cleanup because of his push for pioneering studies into the Chesapeake’s health during the 1970s, had hoped to take part in the Dialogue but had to cancel because of illness.

Mathias was praised by other panel members for his efforts, which ultimately led to the creation of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program and the first Bay Agreement in 1983, in which Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and the federal government pledged to work together to restore the Chesapeake.

Panel members gave the Bay Program mixed reviews, crediting it for helping to move the restoration effort forward, but noting that its voluntary nature has resulted in slow progress.

“Its strength is that there is no other program that will work,” Gartlan said. “It was the only way we could begin to come together.”

Murphy agreed that the strength of a voluntary program “is that there is no opposition.” The drawback, he said, is that voluntary actions by some may be offset by others who do nothing. “You are not going to achieve those objectives based on a voluntary program alone.”

And, Hughes added, “it has to be supported by mandatory actions from time to time. A voluntary moratorium on the catch of rockfish would not have worked.”

Wolff said regulations needed to be used cautiously — and could have met resistance among Pennsylvania farmers, who are far upstream from the Bay. “If you had taken that approach to farmers in Pennsylvania and told them they must do something, my feeling is their heels would have really dug in.”

Gartlan said the effort has helped to build a sense of stewardship — one that is slowly spreading upstream — which inspires people to do their share to protect the Bay and other downstream waters. “The Bay is not mine,” Gartlan said. “It is not anybody’s. But every single one of us has, in my judgment, a responsibility for taking care of this piece of God’s creation for the rest of his creatures for the rest of time.”

But he and others said that sense of stewardship must translate into citizen pressure for strong political leadership if the Bay cleanup is to be successfully pressed further.

“Politicians, every now and then, will listen to the people,” Gartlan said. “But if people aren’t shouting a little bit at them, they don’t get through. I think the political failing that we can be charged with now is not generating enough political commitment behind politicians.”

Wolff characterized former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh as “always less than enthusiastic in his support,” but said that citizen pressure helped secure his backing for water programs that would help the state and the Bay, including signing the 1987 Bay Agreement which began moving nutrient control efforts forward.

Murphy said conservationists need to make politicians address their issues during campaigns. “We can’t wait until the campaigns are over,” he said.

He called for campaign finance reform, charging that political campaigns are funded “by special interests who do not want conservation issues to be campaign issues” so politicians are not committed to any environmental policy when elected.

“We have got to elect our political leaders on the basis of where they stand on these issues and hold them accountable once they are elected,” Murphy said.

The panel expressed doubt that the political leadership exists in the Bay states to tackle the goals of the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement which — among other things — calls for slowing the rate of sprawl 30 percent by 2012, and achieving a clean Bay by 2010.

“The 2000 agreement is very challenging,” Hughes said. “It’s going to require real dedicated political leadership to accomplish that, and I’m not sure we have that.

“But that’s not an excuse for us, or anybody in this room, for giving up now,” he added.

Murphy noted that the cleanup objective is a 10-year goal, and urged people to make the Bay an election issue between now and 2010.

“We have to make the achievement of getting the Bay off the impaired list a political issue, a campaign issue in the next few years,” Murphy said. “Perhaps we can change the political leadership if we work hard at it.”

Most of the panelists said they believed that restoration progress was, at best, slow.

And, they expressed concern that each generation is experiencing a Chesapeake more degraded than the previous generation. As a consequence, each successive generation has lower expectations for the Bay because they are further and further removed from the vibrant, healthy system that once existed.

Fowler said he was beginning to doubt whether he would again see a clean Bay in his lifetime.

“Keep in mind that some of us are getting a little close to the sunset of our life. It’s inevitable, we all know that. But I hoped and prayed, back in 1969 when I first started, that I’d be able to witness, once again, a healthy, vibrant Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay.

“And I’m becoming a little more disillusioned. I’m not quite as optimistic as I was a few years ago that that will occur … We’re going to have to do something more dramatically than what we are doing at the present time if we’re going to save the river and the Bay. Time just isn’t on our side.”

Murphy, too, expressed concern about the pace of progress, but added, “Today’s political leadership may not be tomorrow’s political leadership.”