To onlookers it might be mistaken for a baptism — a group of people standing together in the waters of the Magothy River, backing slowly deeper and gazing downward.
In a way, it is an initiation. Of environmental awareness.
For more than a dozen years, a group of adults and youngsters in North Shore have joined together in the river to perform a simple test of water clarity: seeing how far into the water they can go and still see their feet.
“It’s basically 12 to 15 people stretched out, arms out not touching, and we step backwards,” said Bob Douglas, who organizes the annual “wade-in.”
This year’s test, conducted on the Fourth of July, produced results better than they’ve ever seen before: 43 inches of depth.
In fact, participants went in so far, and could see so deep, that the water was too high for some of the youngsters.
“There was one little guy next to me with bushy hair. He was bouncing up and down on his toes because the water was going into his mouth,” Douglas said.
North Shore’s event is modeled after a similar Patuxent River wade-in started by former state Sen. Bernie Fowler, a Baltimore native who represented Calvert County. Fowler has said that as a young man, he could wade into the Patuxent and still see his sneakers when the water was up to his shoulders; he remains an advocate for restoration of the Patuxent.
“I know Senator Fowler and had heard about his event,” said Douglas, an attorney who lives in the North Shore neighborhood. “It just hit me that it’s a great educational tool.”
So, 15 years ago, he brought the wade-in to the Magothy.
Though the method sounds quaint, water clarity is actually a strong indicator of the river’s health. Good clarity means sunlight can reach grasses and plant life below. And since grasses create habitats for crabs and fish and help filter pollutants from the water, their growth is essential to the health of the Magothy and the Chesapeake Bay.
Visibility measured at North Shore has fluctuated over the years, from 42 inches in 2004 — the previous best — to a low of 19 inches in 2010. Last year the vision of feet disappeared after 31 inches.
Overall, said Douglas, “The pattern is that the water is getting better.”
The wade-in findings support scientific research about bay health. In June, scientists from Maryland and Virginia gave the Chesapeake a C grade for the third consecutive year in their annual report card.
Yet in addition to testing water clarity, Douglas said the wade-in carries another mission: informing more and more people about environmental issues and ways they can keep their water clean — such as cleaning up pet waste to make sure unwanted nutrients don’t enter the waterway.
The annual test, he said, is “a great way to not only inform youngsters but also adults, and to remind them of the responsibility we have to take care of the bay.”