On Sunday June 12, Bernie Fowler will walk into the Patuxent River for the 29th consecutive year to see how deep he can wade and still see his feet.
Fowler is an inspiration for everyone who works on the Bay, or strives to clean up one of its tributaries. He has pushed for improvements for decades, often in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The good news, as Rona Kobell points out in her front-page story about the longtime river and Bay champion, is that he has been seeing a bit farther into the water in recent years. But it’s still nowhere near where he, or many others, thought it would be when he started his campaigns long ago.
That theme is shared with our other front page story, about a new agreement to return shad and river herring to the Bay’s largest tributary, from which they’ve been blocked for nearly a century.
The deal will spur millions, maybe tens of millions, of dollars in additional fish passage improvements at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna, and will at least temporarily resort to trucking to get fish upstream.
But, as Tim Wheeler points out, hopes were similarly high when the original fish lift was built 25 years ago, leaving many to believe the problem was solved — but it wasn’t. There’s optimism that performance standards contained in the new agreement will result in better results this time, but no one knows for sure what the future holds.
Just as memories of a clear Patuxent river have faded, so has the memory of shad, which Bill Goldsborough of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation aptly refers to as a “forgotten fishery.”
As those memories are lost, it causes what is known as a shifting baseline — because people never experience what was lost, their point of reference changes, and their expectations are reduced. The new normal is not what the old normal was, and growing numbers of people do not even realize it. If this trend continues, I worry we will no longer be restoring the Bay, but rather, Chesapeake lite.