The Patuxent River is getting cleaner.
That conclusion doesn't come from scientists, state-of-the-art computer models or sophisticated, water quality monitoring programs.
It comes from Bernie Fowler's white sneakers.
On June 8, the former Maryland state senator waded into the Patuxent River-one of Maryland's major tributaries to the Chesapeake-and was able to see his feet until the water was 44 1/2 inches deep. That was the clearest the river has been since Fowler began conducting his annual Wade In in 1988 to draw attention to the river's pollution problems.
"We have all the confidence in the world that the Patuxent River will one day be very productive again," Fowler told the crowd of more than 150 people who gathered for the event.
That may be good news for the Chesapeake Bay as well. For many years, the Patuxent has been viewed as a microcosm of the Bay, dominated by freshwater in its upper portion while its wide, deep southern area is dominated by brackish water.
"What we do here on the Patuxent River will mirror what we are going to do in the Chesapeake Bay," Fowler said. "If we can't clean up the Patuxent River, it's sheer folly to think that we can clean up the Chesapeake Bay."
Like the Bay, the Patuxent lost clarity as it became polluted with nutrients from runoff and wastewater treatment plants in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The nutrients spur algae growth, which clouds the water. Fowler, who lived on the river, recalls that when he was young, he was able to clearly see his feet as he walked chest-deep in the river, looking for crabs. Cleaning the Patuxent was a key part of Fowler's successful campaigns for seats on the county commission and later in the General Assembly.
Concern by Fowler and others bolstered research efforts on the river, which ultimately led to the conclusion that the control of nitrogen, as well as phosphorus, was necessary to reduce nutrient pollution in estuarine systems. Previously, many- including top EPA officials-thought that it was only necessary to control phosphorus.
As a result, the Patuxent River was the first river in the Bay watershed to have wastewater treatment plants upgraded for nitrogen removal, and it leads all major Chesapeake tributaries for nutrient reductions. Water quality monitoring confirms that the river is being cleaned up.
So do the results of Fowler's Wade In, which has taken place on the second Sunday of June every year at Broomes Island since 1988. In the first year, Fowler could wade only to depths of 10 inches and see his sneakers. That has gradually increased over the years-and so has the event's visibility. This year, the Wade In drew more than 150 people, including EPA Administrator Carol Browner, U.S. Rep Steny Hoyer, and a host of state and local elected officials.
"We may have had a bigger crowd [in previous years] but we've never had a bigger power base," Fowler said of his high-profile guests.
Browner praised the Wade In for its ability to focus attention on an environmental issue in a way the public can understand, and even participate in.
"This test may not be scientific," Browner said, "but it may be more important than what any of my scientists can tell me."
Increasingly, people across the country are conducting wade ins to monitor their local rivers, Browner said. "You may have started something here."
Browner, Hoyer and about 50 others lined up on the beach at Broomes Island to join Fowler for the actual wade in.
"The slower you walk, the more you will concentrate and the longer you will remember the day," Fowler advised them. "This is a good day for each of us to kind of evaluate ourselves as individuals, and come to a decision that owning the largest car, owning the largest house or having the the largest bank account is not the most important thing in the long run," he said.
Though they waded to record depths, Fowler proclaimed that the cleanup job was not done. Visibility is still more than a foot short of his goal. "If we can wade out chest high and see my feet, and see the little crabs and the grass shrimp clearly," Fowler said, "then, we will be there."