Ebb tide

The Baltimore Sun

After 20 years, the annual Bernie Fowler show has become a parody of itself.

Skinny stick of a man, amazingly boyish at 83 in his denim overalls and straw hat with a little American flag stuck in the brim, holding hands with his wife, Betty, and a group of state and local dignitaries as they march 70 or so abreast into the unappealingly brown water of the Patuxent River at Broomes Island to see how far they get before their white sneakers disappear.

The dignitaries all come - including Gov. Martin O'Malley and half his Cabinet - because Mr. Fowler's entreaties are tough to resist. But this once-clever publicity stunt no longer works. The sorry shape of the Chesapeake Bay tributaries is old news.

In fact, Mr. Fowler's worst fear is coming true: There are few Marylanders left who remember when the Patuxent teemed with enough oysters, crabs and other sea life lurking among lush bay grasses to provide this watermen's community a living. The degraded state of the river now is considered normal. People don't know any better.

Indeed, the day after Mr. Fowler's 20th anniversary wade-in last Sunday, the federal Chesapeake Bay Program issued a water quality forecast for this summer that calls for huge swaths of killer algae blooms, no recovery of bay grasses and an oxygen-free dead zone extending along the bay stem from the Chester River to below the Choptank - conditions termed "moderate."

This attitude is reminiscent of what President Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations" when applied to underachieving schools. If fish kills in the Baltimore harbor, bay beaches closed to swimming, and crabmeat from Venezuela sold in bay country stores are considered the acceptable norm, Mr. Fowler's lifetime effort has been in vain.

But he hasn't given up yet.

A former Calvert County commissioner and state senator who successfully sued the Maryland and federal governments for allowing too much untreated sewage from upstream counties into the Patuxent, Mr. Fowler says residential development remains the river's chief polluter.

He's trying to persuade Governor O'Malley to use the river as a kind of cleanup demonstration lab, potentially directing up to $800 million into upgrading sewage treatment plants on the Patuxent in hopes of speedy improvement that could inspire the rest of the bay cleanup.

But the governor has a $1.5 billion hole in his budget, and is mindful that communities near other rivers might not be sympathetic to Mr. Fowler's urgency for the Patuxent if it comes at their expense.

For the moment, many bay advocates are focusing on policy victories. The Critical Area Commission finally found its spine last year in rejecting a huge development near the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge; shoreline protections may be further tightened. The Board of Public Works recently blocked - at least temporarily - another inappropriately located development planned for Kent Island. The General Assembly enacted sweeping new controls on stormwater runoff this year, following imposition three years ago of a "flush tax" to help pay for sewer plant upgrades.

And there may be hope of new federal money, some of it coming from an update of the federal farm bill that would help farmers reduce nutrient runoff from their fields.

There's no quick fix lurking out there, though, and Mr. Fowler's white sneaker test shows the Patuxent is in worse shape now than it was 35 years ago - after a brief period of recovery in the 1990s attributed to sewage plant upgrades. He worries the river may soon reach a point of no return.

His next move is to push for the cheapest part of his recovery plan: a campaign to teach local residents how their individual actions - from emptying waste tanks on boats to obeying zoning restrictions - help or hurt the river. The message is: One individual can make a difference.

What's heartbreaking is that after all these years of soggy sneakers - and now copycat wade-ins around the bay - Bernie Fowler isn't certain how much difference he has made.

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