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Bernie Fowler Can’t Do It Alone

You’re needed to help heal Maryland’s river 


Photo credit: Chesapeake Bay Program.

     What are we going to do about it?

     That’s the question we can’t help asking ourselves if we look a little deeper into the 2018 Chesapeake Bay Report Card issued by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

     “The Chesapeake Bay score remains a C, though it decreased from 54 percent to 46 percent,” you read in staff writer Kathy Knotts’ Bay Weekly story last week.

      “While 2018 was a difficult year for Chesapeake health due to high rainfall, we are seeing trends that the Bay is still significantly improving over time” said Bill Dennison of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “This is encouraging because the Bay is showing resilience to climate change.”

     Beneath that good news is the truth that averages are defined by highs and lows. On the high side, the whole mainstem lower Bay, Virginia’s territory, topped the scale with a grade of B. Two Virginia rivers — the Rappahannock and the James — earned C grades. So did two huge mainstem regions — the upper Bay and lower Eastern Shore. Those were the grades that raised the average — and the regions whose improvement we celebrate.

     Think of them, in this season of high school graduations, as the kids who wear the bronze, silver and gold stoles signifying graduation cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude over their ceremonial gowns. They’re the ones whose statistics principals laud.

      At the other end of the scale are the kids whose families cheer the loudest, the kids who almost ­didn’t get to march across the stage, diploma in hand. From the celebration of graduation day, still other kids are exiled. They’re the uncalled names in the program, who have, at least for now, failed to rise from candidate to graduate.

     On this year’s report card, that unfortunate distinction goes to the Patapsco and Back rivers. Both urban waterways, their failure is explained by the mitigating circumstances of intense development, commercial, industrial and residential. 

      Anchored down there with them are two rivers. For the Elizabeth excuses can be made: Norfolk and Portsmouth’s river endures a fourth kind of dense development: military.

     Then there’s our Patuxent. How are we going to explain the D- grade of Maryland’s own river, beginning and ending in our state? 

      Some of it we can attribute to all that rain. 

      But let’s put that in context. The massive rains of 2018 only added worse to bad, dropping a D grade to a D-. For many years, the Patuxent has been a very sick river, losing its oxygen (and water clarity) to excesses of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. 

      The river’s Trends chart ( looks like a mountain range with scores rising and falling almost annually. 

     In context, the meaning is clear. We are not doing a very good job of taking care of our river.

     That’s sad news for Patuxent River champion retired state senator Bernie Fowler to carry in his heart as he leads his 32nd annual Patuxent River Wade-In. 

      Perhaps — indeed probably — the story would have been different if Fowler had prevailed in his campaign to make the Patuxent the laboratory of Chesapeake cleanup. 

      That the story is no worse is due in large part to Fowler’s decades-long commitment to the river where he grew up. In this week’s feature story, The Enduring Legend of Bernie Fowler, you’ll read about this vision, his activism, his achievements. 

     But at 95 years old, this one man has done about all he can. So the question we’ve got to ask ourselves is What are we going to do about it?

      Are we content to let Maryland’s river remain the anchor at the bottom of the curve of Bay health? Or will we learn from Bernie to do better? 

     I hope it’s the latter.

     His white sneakers are big shoes to fill. If you’re ready to walk that walk, he has the path marked out for you. One thing for sure you’ll need to do: lend your voice to low-growth planning as your county, Calvert or Anne Arundel, revises its comprehensive plan. 

     Learn more from Bernie himself. Join hands in his 32nd Wade-in Sunday, June 9 (1-4pm) at Jefferson Patterson Park, St. Leonard.


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