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
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
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
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.