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An anxious activist checks Patuxent clarity

BROOMES ISLAND — BROOMES ISLAND - This afternoon, Bernie Fowler, the former state senator and indefatigable Southern Maryland environmentalist, will wade into the Patuxent River in coveralls and white tennis shoes for his 17th annual clear-water test.

As usual, Fowler's wife, Betty, will serve fried chicken, children will sing "Chesapeake Born" and the old-timers will swap stories of a river so clear that they could see crabs scamper across its bottom.

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But this year, the usually folksy event is taking on a dire tone because the Patuxent River that Gov. Harry R. Hughes promised to help save 25 years ago continues to struggle for life.

Long gone are the hundreds of crabbers and oystermen who lived well off the river's abundance. In their place are declining bay grasses, rampant aquatic diseases and persistent pollution. These days at Broomes Island, waders barely get into water 16 inches deep before the murky Patuxent obscures their toes.

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"This year, it just keeps hammering away at me: 'You gotta hit hard on this one. Time is running out,'" Fowler said. "And I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that there is a point of no return. How close we are to that, I don't know. But not too distant."

So Fowler, 80, is asking the politicians wading with him this year to bring a commitment, just as Hughes did 25 years ago when he looked at the piles of dead oysters and declared that the river could and should be saved. Fowler is hoping for promises to invest more in wastewater treatment plants, to examine growth more closely and to preserve the river's health and heritage.

It might sound naive, but those who know him say that if anyone can wrest commitments out of those in power, it's the genteel former senator.

Nearly 30 years ago, when he was a Calvert County commissioner, Fowler led the three Southern Maryland counties in a lawsuit against the state and federal governments, charging that they were allowing too much untreated sewage from suburban counties upstream into the Patuxent.

With the help of University of Maryland scientists who risked their jobs to testify, the counties won, and the state agreed to reduce nutrients flowing into the river. That agreement became the model for the interstate bay restoration effort.

"No one has greater dedication to cleaning up the Patuxent River than Bernie Fowler," Hughes said. "It's going to take a massive effort and resources, and the political leadership has got to recognize that and do it."

For many environmentalists, the fight for the Patuxent mirrors the struggle for the Chesapeake Bay. The river's ecosystem is a microcosm of the aquatic life in the bay, and the Patuxent, almost streamlike in parts of Anne Arundel and Howard counties, is wider and more like the bay as it nears the Chesapeake at Broomes Island.

But unlike the bay, where the actions of six states and the District of Columbia affect the water quality, the Patuxent River flows entirely within Maryland. For that reason, said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker, Fowler's fight is one the state can't afford to lose.

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"If you can't save the Patuxent River," Baker said, "then what real hope do you have for the Chesapeake Bay?"

In the past decade, Patuxent devotees saw reasons for hope. In 1994, the year Fowler retired after 12 years in the state Senate, bay grasses were so tall that children pulled them up to make wigs. In 1997, Fowler waded out to a depth of 44.5 inches before his sneakers disappeared, still the test's high-water mark. He credits improvements at sewage treatment plants for the rebound.

But Fowler no longer needs to look upstream to see what ails the river. Calvert County, once a quiet, rural place, is the fastest-growing county in the state, with a population of 84,000, up from 51,000 in 1990.

So many people commute to Washington that at times, Route 2 in Calvert County is as congested as Route 2 in Anne Arundel, where the road is better known as Ritchie Highway.

Fancy homes have supplanted the tobacco and corn farms on Broomes Island, the once-remote peninsula where Fowler grew up chasing crabs and catching eels as a boy and where he fell in love, at first sight, with Washingtonian Betty Holden, who was spending the summer there more than 55 years ago.

The boats of strangers

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On the coves and creeks, where Fowler could identify a boat with his eyes closed by the hum of its motor, he sees mostly powerboats owned by strangers. Gone are the sport fishermen who woke him up at midnight, asking to rent a rowboat from Bernie's Boats because the hardhead would bite until the sun rose. Gone, too, are the commercial fishermen, who snared thousands of bass and croaker in seines.

But Fowler's biggest heartbreak is the demise of Warren Denton's oyster house, which closed four years ago and will soon become a banquet facility. Every day after school, Fowler came home, grabbed one of his mother's biscuits from the oven and ran to the oyster house. Just before 4 p.m., a shucker would start a spiritual - maybe "Soon, and very soon, I'm going to see the king" - and an alto and a baritone would join in.

"That oyster house was nothing but a whole house full of harmony," Fowler said. "You never appreciate the value of something like that until it's gone."

So few watermen remain in Calvert County that when the University of Maryland conducted a study on the area's heritage in 1997, researchers had to call on neighboring St. Mary's County to find enough watermen for their focus group.

When Fowler was a boy, two men could catch 40 bushels of oysters in a day. Last year, the state's total harvest was 20,000 bushels. If the river ever comes back, Fowler says jokingly, the colleges will need to teach tonging classes; he doesn't know of one oysterman still working on Broomes Island.

To see the river as it was, Fowler heads to the Calvert Marine Museum, where the drake-tails and bugeyes remind him of home. Encased in glass are wooden names once affixed to the boats. Fowler can recite by heart the names of each captain.

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Even though his son builds homes and he once worked in the business, Fowler said, the rapid development in the county has sickened him.

Trying to help

Gregory Bowen, Calvert's deputy planning director, said the county has tried to minimize the river's woes by upgrading its three sewage-treatment plants and trying to control commercial growth. Still, he recognizes that the new residents - who come for the good schools, pretty views and slower pace - don't have the same relationship with the water. That's especially true, residents say, in places such as Chesapeake Beach and North Beach, where many newcomers view the bay from upscale townhouses.

"I don't know that we ever all had great access to the water, but the connections have been severed over time," Bowen said.

Like many others, he considers Fowler a visionary whose lawsuit not only gave the Patuxent a lifeline, but also ignited Maryland's environmental consciousness. Each spring, dozens of communities hold Fowler-style wade-ins. The University of Maryland's scientists think so much of his work that they named a new lab building on Solomons Island after him.

And yet, as Fowler walks along Broomes Island's sands, he wonders whether he has done enough, whether the river's good years gave him a rest that made him complacent.

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In the past decade, some of the scientists who joined his lawsuit have died, as have many of the island's crabbers. If the state doesn't act now to restore the Patuxent, he fears, people will accept the river for what it is without knowing what it was.

"My deepest worry that I have about the river and the Chesapeake Bay is that voices like mine will be silenced one day," Fowler said. "And when that occurs, there's nothing in the computer banks that's going to tell you what that river was like."


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