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The Patuxent River's unsatisfied man

If Maryland is "America in Miniature," then the Patuxent River is the linkage for that miniature America. It is the largest and longest river whose watershed lies completely within the state. It traverses dense woodlands and farm villages of the Piedmont, populous urban and suburban communities, and then meanders downstream to a quilted landscape of fishing villages and tobacco barns before emptying into the Chesapeake. Born near Parr's Ridge in Carroll County and ending at Drum Point 115 miles later, the scenic river has sustained human habitation for more than 8,000 years, long before explorer John Smith named it 400 years ago. And because of its size and its pathway, it is a unique barometer of how Marylanders are meeting the challenge to restore and protect the waterways that are so critical to our natural, economic and cultural well-being.

Today, Bernie Fowler will pull on his overalls, button a white shirt, grab his straw hat with a tiny American flag stuck in the brim and tie up the same pair of white sneakers he has used to wade into the Patuxent on the second Sunday of every June for the past 25 years. The former state senator and Calvert County commissioner will welcome family, friends and colleagues to a "wade in" that has become replicated at other rivers in Maryland and beyond. A quarter-century ago, Bernie described to a friend, the late folk singer Tom Wisner, the crystal clarity of the river when he fished in it as a young man. At his friend's urging, Bernie created an eco-event out of wading into the Patuxent to "measure" its health by how far he could walk out and see his sneakers in the water.

For 24 years, he has done this. For 24 years, he hasn't been satisfied with the result.

When he was young, he could wade up to his shoulders and see and snatch blue crabs hiding in the sea grasses on the riverbed. During his "wade-ins," however, his sneakers have typically vanished about two feet deep in the water, maybe 31/2 feet tops in the better years. The river's natural ability to cleanse itself has been overtaxed by nutrient pollution. A variety of sources have fed too much algae, reduced oxygen levels, eliminated the sea grasses and forced many creatures to leave the Patuxent in search of other waters with sufficient oxygen to survive. Bernie took his fight to the courts and changed how waste water was collected and treated in the Patuxent. The river improved. Sea grasses returned upstream. But progress proved as elusive as a crab in the murky river.

The Patuxent has consistently received some of the lowest grades in the Chesapeake watershed for stream health in the six years that an academic and governmental consortium has produced its annual bay scorecard. Many reasons are possible. The multiplication of homes on large lots with septic tanks over time hasn't helped. In fact, septic pollution has canceled out more than one-third of the progress for which Bernie has fought. Between 1985 and 2000, septic tanks across the watershed more than doubled their yearly nutrient output, from 212,000 pounds to 480,000 pounds.

There is hope for the Patuxent, however, and for all of the bay. In 2008, Mr. Fowler, along with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others, sued theU.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failure to clean up the bay. The resulting settlement ultimately forced the six states in the watershed (New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and West Virginia) plus the District of Columbia to implement a "pollution diet" by 2025. As part of this effort, the Patuxent River Commission has worked with the seven counties within the river's watershed to ensure that local governments and citizens determine their own pollution reduction plan. This spring, the General Assembly, responding to Gov.Martin O'Malley's plea to tackle the last major unchecked source of nitrogen pollution escaping into groundwater and streams, approved landmark legislation to curb major residential subdivisions on septic systems.

Today, Bernie will look out over a river that provided him refuge from summer heat as a boy and a direction and purpose in his public life as a man. We can't predict how deep he'll wade in before his high-tops vanish from sight. But knowing Bernie's quest and his love and respect for the Patuxent, it's a good bet that for a 25th time, he won't leave satisfied.

Richard Eberhart Hall is Maryland secretary of planning. The public is welcome to join the Bernie Fowler Wade-In at 1 p.m. today at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, 10515 Mackall Road, St. Leonard. More information at planning.maryland.gov.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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