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Dozens of Southern Maryland residents spent their Sunday afternoon at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the annual Patuxent River Wade-In.

Former senator Bernie Fowler has used his own personal tracking mechanism, the Bernie Fowler Sneaker Index, where he walks into the river until he can no longer see his shoes, to measure the clarity of the water for 25 years. With predictions of the measurement being about the same as last year’s 31.25 inches, Fowler was able to wade out 35 inches into the Patuxent River before losing sight of his white sneakers.

“It really is not very scientific, but it’s a way of focusing, getting people engaged, connecting them to the river and knowing that there’s something bad happening out there,” Fowler said. He said the river looks beautiful on the surface, “but it’s what’s down below the surface that you can’t see that’s causing the problem.”

Fowler attributed the slight increase in the measurement to the water temperature, which he said was “not warmed up as much” as it was last year.

Since Fowler began wading out into the river, its water quality has constantly declined. This year, the Patuxent River was given a grade of ‘F’ for its bay health index and was deemed to have very poor ecosystem health, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Integration and Application Network website.

“We deserve better than that,” Fowler said of the ‘F’ rating. “The Patuxent River deserves better than that.”

Although the river’s water quality is poor, “that does not in any way give us an excuse to quit trying” to improve it, Fowler said. The improvements may not be realized within the next 10 years, he said, but people need to continue to be relentless with their support.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George’s), Del. John Bohanan (D-St. Mary’s), former delegate Sue Kullen representing Sen. Ben Cardin’s (D-Md.) office, Sara Leming representing Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) office, Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans (R), Calvert County Commissioners’ President Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R), Calvert County Commissioners Susan Shaw (R) and Steve Weems (R), Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson (D), St. Mary’s County Commission President Jack Russell (D), Wayne Clark of the Tri-County Council and representatives from SMECO and various environmental agencies were among those in attendance Sunday afternoon.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) said the annual wade-in is important because even though there are efforts being made to help clean up the river, the quality of the water continues to decline and more needs to be done to help. Last year, the temperature of the Chesapeake Bay rose 2 1/2 degrees, which affects its water quality, he said.

“We have to take greater actions and we have to take it more quickly so that for the grandkids, it’s not all gone,” O’Malley said. “ … The bottom line is, the reason we wade in … [is] not only to measure the depth and the clarity of these waters, but to find a greater depth and a greater clarity to the precious consensus necessary for us to be able to restore the waters of the Chesapeake Bay.”

O’Malley presented Fowler with a proclamation declaring June 10 as Bernie Fowler Wade-In Day in Maryland. O’Malley said Fowler is “one of the most decent Americans any of us have ever” met and has spread the love and respect he has for the river as a source of power for cleaning up and restoring the health of the river.

Sen. Roy Dyson (D-Calvert, Charles, St. Mary’s) said about $7 million is in the budget to set up new oyster sanctuaries and tributaries on the Eastern Shore, which will go a long way to bringing back Maryland’s oyster restoration. Recently, Poplar Island has been restored to a “fantastic habitat” through a partnership between federal and state governments, which should be done to help improve the Patuxent River, Dyson said.

“We can all come together and we can make this thing work,” Dyson said. “Bernie, you gave us the inspiration. I’m still inspired.”

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) said when O’Malley became governor, he and Fowler met with him and talked about “how we ought to do God’s work with God’s resources given to us with God’s expectation that we would keep that resource” for future generations to enjoy. He said O’Malley has “kept the faith,” but the river is not where it needs to be.

“There needs to be no partisanship about this issue” and everyone at the federal, state and local level needs to work together to help clean up the river, Hoyer said.

Hoyer presented Fowler with an American flag, which he said flew over the Capitol of the United States, in honor of “25 years of keeping the faith.” Hoyer said when Fowler first walked into the river he went out about 5 1/2 feet and could still see his shoes. Even though that has not happened for a long time, “Bernie Fowler has kept the faith,” Hoyer said.

“America has been both great and successful because of people like Bernie Fowler,” Hoyer said. “ … America appreciates what [Fowler] has done for its country and for its land and for its waters.”

kfitzpatrick@somdnews.com