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'Wading' for Political Will—Fowler Hosts 25th Event
St. Leonard, MD - 6/11/2012
By Marty Madden
Can big government save the Patuxent River? That seems to be the lingering question after former state senator and longtime steward of the Southern Maryland waterways, Bernie Fowler, hosted his 25th annual Patuxent River Wade-in at Jefferson Patterson Park.
The event, which took place Sunday, June 10, is a largely symbolic ritual where family, friends and elected officials hold hands and walk into the river. Wearing old white sneakers, Fowler leads the chain of humanity to the point where he can no longer see the shoes. There was good news regarding the “Sneaker Index,” which measures the waterline on Fowler’s overalls. This year’s index was 35 inches, better than last year’s 31.25 inches and slightly better than 2010’s mark of 34.5 inches.
“We’ve been taking baby steps,” Fowler told a documentary filmmaker prior to the wade-in. “We could be taking giant steps.” Fowler said the river’s revitalization was crucial because of its potential yield of seafood and for public safety and health concerns. The latter concerns have been prompted by reports and confirmations of Vibrio wound infections sustained by swimmers.
The retired politician said the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) strategy for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay Watershed “has flaws in it.” Fowler indicated agency officials are basing their plan on the assumption that public wastewater treatment plants' discharge is less likely to increase nutrient levels. He said the plants cause far more pollution than the private septic systems that are so prominent in rural Maryland.
Several political leaders were in attendance and addressed the gathering prior to the wade in. The group included Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley [D], U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer [D-MD District 5], Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. [D-District 27], State Senator Roy Dyson [D-District 29], Delegate John Bohanan [D-District 29B] and several commissioners from the three Southern Maryland counties.
It was Calvert County Commissioners’ President Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark [R] who got the attention, and perhaps the ire, of some of the other political leaders, when he pleaded with the state and federal government to get on board the Patuxent River cleanup bandwagon.
“If we can’t fix this river with the firepower under this tent here today, when can it be fixed?” Clark asked. “Help us clean up this river. I’m begging you.”
When it was his turn to speak, O’Malley reminded Clark that members of his [Clark’s] party opposed measures, such as a proposed increase in the Flush Tax and the controversial Septic Bill. “We’d like some of you [Republicans] to join us,” said the governor, who blamed the river’s degradation on climate change.
“We used all our firepower last year,” said Miller, who noted several initiatives designed to clean up the watershed were passed during the 2012 session of the Maryland General Assembly. Among the measures was an expansion of oyster aquaculture.
“We need to be in this together,” said Hoyer. “The grade on the Patuxent is down, not up.”
Indeed, the latest University of Maryland Chesapeake Bay report card gave the Patuxent an F for its current condition. The river’s previous grade was a D.
“Am I discouraged? No. Disappointed? Yes,” said Fowler. “We deserve better than that. The Patuxent deserves better.”
Fowler asked O’Malley to implement a strategy that would make the Patuxent River “a benchmark” for cleaning up the bay’s tributaries. Essentially, the state would dedicate all or most of its resources to making the Patuxent clean before implementing cleanups in other rivers. After emerging from the river following the wade-in, O’Malley indicated he did not concur with Fowler’s strategy. The governor affirmed what he had said earlier, that the bay cleanup was “a matter of spreading the consensus and connecting the dots.” While the Patuxent River prototype strategy could save the Western Shore river, O’Malley said “what if the Corsica [River] dies? What if the Choptank dies?”
Politics and pollution aside, Fowler, the iconic octogenarian, truly appeared to be enjoying the day. “It reminds me of Christmas,” he exclaimed. In fact, several individuals presented gifts to Fowler—two different renderings of his trademark sneakers, and an American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol, which Hoyer gave him.
But clearly the greatest gift was the presence of many of Fowler’s family, including his wife Betty, who missed last year’s wade-in because she was convalescing. After a thunderous ovation under a large tent, the throng gathered at the river, held hands and held onto hope.
“It’s not just one person, it’s all of us,” Fowler.
Contact Marty Madden at firstname.lastname@example.org
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