Cleaning a River Takes Heart and Brains

“We’re all Fowler’s Followers,” said Congressman Steny Hoyer, as 86-year-old retired state senator Bernie Fowler led the 24th annual Wade In to his beloved Patuxent River. Hoyer had already proclaimed the river’s health — C- to D- as measured by the Patuxent Riverkeeper — “not good enough.”
    When the procession of Followers had waded into the rain-fed river from Jefferson Patterson Park, Fowler announced “the news is not good, folks.” Visibility, as measured by how far he could wade before losing sight of his white sneakers, was only 31.5 inches.
    Last year, the watermark rose 39.5 inches up the legs of his traditional farmer’s coveralls. In 2009, the watermark, hence visibility, was only 30 inches.
    Bernie’s Sneaker Index is a symbolic rather than scientific measure. But the annual Wade In gives heart and hope to Maryland — and Fowler’s campaign — to clean up “this extraordinary asset,” as Hoyer called the biggest river entirely within Maryland’s boundaries.
    As the heart of the Patuxent River beats in Bernie Fowler’s chest, its brains, said Hoyer, are working in the head of Walter Boynton, estuarine scientist at University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons. Boynton, Hoyer says, “tells us what we should — and should not — be doing.”
    “What’s wrong with these rivers is not a mystery anymore — though it was when we started these Wade Ins,” Boynton told this year’s gathering of close to 200 Followers.
    “They’re overfed with too much nitrogen, phosphorous and dirt.”
    Neither is the cure a mystery.
    “We need to put this river on a serious diet,” the doctor says.
    If not a mystery, his cure is a bit of a miracle. For, he says, do that and “it will lose weight quickly. Not in seven generations but in a couple of years.”
    By comparison, today’s nutrification is only six times what it was when Captain John Smith sailed our waters.
    “We’ve only got to cut that in half,” Boynton says, to reach our goals for water quality.
    If Boynton sounds unduly optimistic about the Bay’s health, he says he’s not. Rather than optimistic, he’s realistic. “This is technical stuff,” he says. “If you do this, this happens.”
    Our goals are more than words in Boynton’s mouth. They’re responsibilities. So he gave each Follower — and you as well — homework:.
    1. Instead of preaching to the choir, go talk to your neighbor about what you and he can do to push the river’s diet.
    2. Join the Patuxent Riverkeeper, who, Boynton says, “is on this 24/7.” That’s
    3. Next time you’re out working on your lawn, think twice: am I doing this right for our rivers and the Bay?
    4. Give political leaders the support they need. “We need money to invest in pollution reduction, whether its reducing pollution from sewage treatment plants — which we can do — to helping farmers reduce pollution from their fields.”