When he waded into the Patuxent River this spring, Bernie Fowler was able to go deeper and still see his feet than he had in years.
But when he — along with 75 others — could no longer see the bottom, they were in just 42 inches of water. That was still far short of Fowler’s goal: clearly seeing his feet when he is chest-deep in the river.
“It looks to me like it has kind of leveled off,” the retired state senator said of the river’s water clarity. “I don’t believe it’s getting any worse, but I don’t think it’s getting any better, either.”
Fowler’s “Wade-In” is an annual June event aimed at drawing attention to the river’s condition. When the 75-year-old Fowler was a young man, he said it was possible to clearly see crabs scurry by his feet while standing in deep water, but visibility decreased as nutrient pollution increased over the years.
In the 1960s and 1970s, he led efforts to clean up the river, which ultimately resulted in the realization that the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus were fouling water quality — a finding that served as the basis for the Bay cleanup. As a result, wastewater treatment plants on the Patuxent were the first in the Bay watershed to be upgraded with nitrogen control technology.
Water quality has responded. In 1988, when the 6-foot Fowler began his annual wade-in, he couldn’t even get his knees wet: Visibility was less than a foot.
That increased steadily, peaking at 44 inches in 1997. It has fluctuated at lower levels since then, dipping to 31 inches last year.
Fowler credited this year’s improvement mainly to lack of rain, which washed fewer nutrients and sediment into the water. “It was probably more climatic than anything else,” he said.
Although Fowler said cooperation among state, federal and local agencies has improved since he waged his effort to clean up the river, they will have to increase their efforts if the river — and the Bay — are to be cleaned up.
“I really would like to see a greater improvement,” he said. “I would like to see the river more productive. I’d like to see that before I move off into the sunset.”