Fowler and friends step into the Patuxent at last year’s Wade-In. Not enough has improved since the then-Senator waded in back in 1993.
This Sunday, June 8, Bernie Fowler will tie on his white sneakers to wade into the Patuxent River. Well-wishers, family and friends, school kids, politicians and reporters will join him, linking hands in a human chain, striding into the water until they can no longer see their shoes. Then, if history is a guide, Steny Hoyer — the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. Congress — will measure the height of the watermark on his old friend’s overalls, declaring the Sneaker Index for 2014.
The 27-year-old ritual is the advertising for a campaign much longer — 45 years — and deeper, Fowler’s battle for his beloved Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay.
Read on to meet to the steadfast 90-year-old and hear his articulate, plain-spoken history of success and failure in our watershed.
Bay Weekly For 45 years, you’ve fought in defense of the Patuxent River.
Bernie Fowler The Patuxent River is the longest river entirely in the state of Maryland. As goes the river, so goes the Bay. We’ve fought hard to get things rolling, focused attention on the decline of water quality. We were the genesis of the whole Bay program.
Yet this river is one of the worst in the watershed, graded D in 2013 by University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science. It has all the challenges — power plants, wastewater treatment plants, industrialization, farming, population.
Bay Weekly Were you always a fighter?
Bernie Fowler Yes, but my war — World War II in the Pacific — was easy compared to many. We had lots of support, including battleships. But my brother died, probably betrayed, parachuting into Holland. I only had two fistfights in my life, never malicious. You pick your fight.
Bay Weekly To what lengths did your determination take you?
Bernie Fowler I would have never been a politician. I was personable, likeable. Dad said, “would I consider it?” “Dad,” I said, “there are two things I don’t want to do: be a politician and sell booze for a living.” I never sold booze, but I did renege on the other.
Bay Weekly You stayed in politics from 1970 to 1994.
Bernie Fowler I was almost forced to by issues going on in Calvert County. If you don’t like this and that, you have to get involved and work with your community for change.
One of the big ones, the Patuxent River was beginning to deteriorate. We saw it years before Maryland Department of Natural Resources recognized it. That was a project I really had my heart in.
Bay Weekly You traveled quite a distance from your boyhood on the Patuxent …
Bernie Fowler Boys didn’t go to high school from Broomes Island. I was one of the first two. You got old enough to see over the culling board, you tonged oysters. The philosophy was, send them up and you’re going to ruin them. They won’t know how to do anything. You worked the river, farmed or didn’t eat. We had outdoor plumbing in our house until I came back from World War II.
Bay Weekly So the river was a way of life …
Bernie Fowler The Patuxent was one of the most productive rivers in the watershed. We had the largest oyster packing house — Warren Denton, at Broomes Island, with135 shuckers at peak times — sending oysters out all over the country. People called the river a real breadbasket and meat house.
Back in the early 1950s, the water was clear down to 12 feet, twice my height.
On the Bay, I’d fish with my uncle at Drum Point and look down and see lush green grass full of big blue hard crabs. I’d try to reach down to get them with a 10-foot-long crab net, but I could not get down far enough.
Bay Weekly Not too many years ago Denton closed …
Bernie Fowler Because of water quality. Oxygen went down, sediment covered the beds, disease moved in. Oysters could not survive. We’ve lost an important part of our culture. So in 1970, when I was elected into the county commissioners’ office, the river was one of my hot buttons.
How did you push that button?
Bernie Fowler My first act, I went to Annapolis. I visited Gov. Marvin Mandel. I spoke to the attorney general, then the head of DNR. “If we lose the river, we lose the Bay,” I said, “and Maryland loses its heart. The Bay is why people love Maryland and a very powerful tourist attraction.” I got nothing but a pat on the shoulder.
Bay Weekly Did your luck with politicians ever improve?
Bernie Fowler Judge Tom Rymer, then chair of the Tri-County Council, was my first ally. We got the members to put their heads together to do something for the river. I made a passionate speech. Finally I said, “the river is dying, oysters and fish are going to leave. We can build a monument, here lies the Patuxent River. Or we can flex our muscles, put some money together, hire an environmental attorney and see if we have any recourse in court.” Three or four people took their handkerchiefs out.
One of them jumped up and said, “Right! We’ll get nowhere ’til you sue the bastards!”
Was he right?
Bernie Fowler We sued all the way up to the federal government.
We won two suits and lost one. We forced Howard County to do an environmental impact statement on its water treatment plant. In the bigger suit, against the state and the federal EPA, the judge said they had to make a plan to fix up the river, not assist growth.
But we made a humongous mistake. We should have set a dateline, like 20 years, and held the case open. But we were so elated at wining, we figured people would cooperate. We got a beautiful plan, the Patuxent River Policy Plan, but it was just a dust collector. That was about 1982.
Bay Weekly So you had some traction …
Bernie Fowler Gov. Harry Hughes was my knight in shining armor. A few years before, in 1979, I invited him cruising on the river. We had two boats from the Chesapeake Biological Lab for politicians, scientists and reporters, box lunches and a dinner in Solomons. I had written a speech and I ad-libbed some. “We’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving,” I said, “and we have another very important holiday coming up where people give gifts and lot of love. You could be Santa and help us clean this river up.”
He smiled and said “ho-ho-ho” and committed himself right there to stick with the river. He made things happen.
Bay Weekly What did Santa deliver?
Bernie Fowler We got the National Academy of Sciences, the Chesapeake Biological Lab and The Philadelphia Academy of Sciences, then at Benedict, to convince the EPA that in saline water, nitrogen was a problem, compounded by phosphorus, which they admitted was a problem.
We got $29 million to take nitrogen out of the Western Branch sewage treatment plant in Prince George’s County.
We wanted to see whether that made a difference, so we took one plant. There are 10 major plants on the river, 35 all together.
In the early 1990s, after they were all cleaned up, grass began coming back, and the water was cleaner at Bernie’s Boats when we waded in. There were one or two years where the difference was so clear you’d have to be an ostrich with your head in the sand not to see it.
Bay Weekly You’ve gone to new lengths …
Bernie Fowler I’ve begged and pleaded with every governor to think out of the box.
Use this river for a lab. Let’s keep on doing all we’re doing to all the others, and at the same time, clean up this river expediently. If it’s possible to clean this river up, you’ve got a benchmark for cleaning the whole Bay.
If takes more taxes, it’s worth it.
I proposed that to Gov. Bob Ehrlich. He hugged me, and I never heard from him.
Gov. O’Malley — and I think highly of him — says you can’t take one river …
Bay Weekly So in 2010, you went to court again…
Bernie Fowler The only time we really accomplished anything on the Bay and the tributaries was through the court system or mandatory legislation. I went to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. We sued under the 1972 Clean Water Act to force the EPA to clean up the Bay.
As soon as we filed, President Obama issued an executive order directing the EPA to come up with a plan to restore the Bay, and he wanted an outline in 120 days. I think our suit initiated his action.
Bay Weekly Is restoration of the watershed a goal in sight?
Bernie Fowler Nowadays a lot is going on. But it isn’t enough, and it isn’t fast enough. We’re not ahead of the curve. Dead zones are not as big as last year. That’s not a signal we’ve got the Bay cleaned up.
Two dozen attorneys general from across the country tried to stop our Total Maximum Daily Load standards for fear they might have to do the same kind of action in the Everglades, on the Mississippi.
Or our own stormwater restoration fee [in Baltimore and nine counties, not Calvert]. I know taxes are painful. But we pay taxes to make life sustainable. Stormwater runoff is one of our biggest problems, and it’s got to be corrected. Aliens from Mars didn’t cause our problems. We did, citizens of the Chesapeake watershed. We messed it up; we’ve got to fix it.
Bay Weekly So you’re not hanging up your sneakers.
Bernie Fowler We have miles to go before we sleep. We must get an international handle on climate change.
Bay Weekly And the Patuxent?
Bernie Fowler Use this prominent river as a lab, pour everything we’ve got into it, and you’ll see tremendous improvement.
We’d love you to come wade in with us June 8. There will be speeches, fun, music to encourage people to be braver, more courageous. And you get a free picnic plus a beach towel.