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Volume 14, Issue 24 ~ June 15 - June 21, 2006

Murky Results at Chesapeake’s Most Enduring Environmental Ritual

Spirit was good at Bernie Fowler’s annual Patuxent wade-in; results were not

by Sandra Olivetti Martin

Broomes Island—When Chesapeake wade-in guru Bernie Fowler suddenly bolted from a line of folks about to get wet at his 19th Annual Wade-In, it looked for a moment that Martin O’Malley and Doug Duncan might have to hold hands to keep the circle unbroken.

But alas, the Democratic rivals didn’t have to get quite that chummy, and Fowler returned to lead the line of waders into the Patuxent River in what has become Chesapeake Country’s most enduring environmental ritual.

The spirit was there; the results were not.

This year’s 27.25-inch sneaker index (the depth at which shoes were visible in the water) matched last year’s result, indicating no progress in the crusade for clarity in Chesapeake waters. Given a 44.5-inch index in 1997, it’s no wonder that Fowler, a former state senator and full-time Bay champion, felt compelled afterward to exhort his followers to keep up the fight.

“We will not relent. We will not surrender. We will not slow down until the Patuxent River is brought back to the state it was in in the 1950s,” said the overalls-clad Fowler, threatening a lawsuit.

This year’s event took on a decidedly partisan flavor with O’Malley and Duncan among a slew of Democratic officials weighing in while wading in. Not a single major GOP candidate showed.

Fowler, a Democrat, said he’d scripted a bipartisan affair and had invited Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who had joined in two previous wade-ins.

“I said, ‘please let me know if the governor is coming. I want to pay the respect his office is due’. I didn’t hear back from them,” Fowler said.

Ehrlich’s schedule had him in Annapolis at the 3pm dedication of the Maryland Fallen Firefighters monument. Had the governor showed up for the 2pm wade-in, he might have reminded the 150 or so Bay enthusiasts that the so-called flush tax he engineered might eventually help clean up Bay tributaries by paying for new sewage treatment plants.

Instead, nobody was on hand to defend the governor against allegations that he helped to scuttle or water down other environmentally friendly bills, including one aimed specifically at the Patuxent.

“I don’t know who the governor is going to be next year. … But it’s not going to be somebody who’s not friendly to the environment,” said Senate President Mike Miller, a Democrat who made it to both events but who didn’t get wet.

Duncan, the Montgomery County executive, asked, “How do we make sure that we’re not the generation that leaves a dead Chesapeake Bay to our children? The dead zones keep getting bigger every year.”

O’Malley, Baltimore’s mayor, asserted that government action is needed to stem the Bay’s decline. “Each of us does make a difference so that our tomorrow is better than today,” he said.

Afterward, the candidates were asked by Bay Weekly how environmental voters can choose between the two when their public utterances are platitudes.

Each said look at my record: O’Malley said that Baltimore had spent nearly $1 billion on improving storm and sewage systems. He said he envisioned applying the type of rigorous problem-solving methods to the Chesapeake that have worked in Charm City.

“That’s what the Bay needs. We shouldn’t just be talking about it every four years or in every budget session,” O’Malley said. “We should be dealing with it every week.”

Duncan said that voters need to look at what he has done for streams and environmental protections in populous Montgomery County and noted that he was an early supporter of statewide air pollution curbs.

“You need to look at the recovery,” he said.

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