This Sunday, as he has done every June since 1988, former state senator Bernie Fowler will wade into the Patuxent River to test its health. We fully expect the still-spry 96-year-old will wear his signature overalls and American flag-festooned straw hat as he wanders into the river until he can no longer see his sneakers, marking the water’s depth level as his “Sneaker Index” — an informal means of measuring the river’s clarity.
The only difference this year is that you’re not invited. Not physically, anyway.
The 33rd annual event is set for this Sunday, June 14, at 1 p.m. at Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum. The wade-in will be streamed live on Facebook at www.facebook.com/JPPMMD/. Call 410-586-8501 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
In past years, the event has attracted a great number of politicians (particularly in even-numbered years), as well as family, friends, anti-pollution advocates and all manner of lovers of the Patuxent, the river from which Fowler has fished and crabbed for more than nine decades. But due to crowd limits and social distancing forced by the coronavirus epidemic, this year’s wade-in will feature just a handful of people, including JPPM’s director. But the spirit and significance of the event are not diminished.
Of course, the Sneaker Index is by no means scientific, but its symbolism is a powerful reminder of how important conservation and fighting pollution are.
And it’s hard to argue that anyone has been a more staunch advocate for keeping the Patuxent clean than Fowler. In fact, when he first aspired to public office in 1970, the Democrat ran for Calvert County commissioner largely on the platform of making the river healthier. So great was his passion for the river, in fact, that he spearheaded a lawsuit by the three Southern Maryland counties against the upriver Patuxent counties over the pollution they were habitually dumping into the river and, farther downstream, the Chesapeake Bay. The lawsuit eventually forced the state, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to enact stricter pollution control measures.
After three terms at the commissioners table in Prince Frederick, Fowler won election in 1982 as the shared state senator for St. Mary’s and southern Calvert, serving in that capacity until 1994. All the while, he continued to make the vitality of the largest river contained completely within Maryland his most valuable project.
So when he wades out into his beloved river, it’s not just some folksy demonstration. As much as anyone can claim, Bernie Fowler is the Patuxent. The man has cred.
Indeed, Fowler’s five decades of fighting state and federal policies to improve the waterway he grew up along and, by extension, the greater Chesapeake Bay watershed have not been in vain. Reports in recent years suggest the bay’s health is generally improving overall, and environmental advocates and legislators alike attribute this to actions taken at the state and federal levels to reduce pollution and boost ecosystem health.
So perhaps it’s more important now than ever in the last several years to turn our collective attention toward the health of our waterways. We encourage all who share Fowler’s concern and love for the Patuxent to watch the former senator and a few friends get their feet wet.
So whether you are watermen, farmers, stalwart environmentalists or simply those who enjoy recreation along the river, we urge you all to (symbolically this time) take Fowler’s hand renew the enthusiasm to restore this most precious natural resource.