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Bernie Fowler: Father of Patuxent Recovery

Fatherhood is a lifelong calling

Father to four, grandfather to eight and great-grand­father to seven, retired state senator Bernie Fowler doubles as father of Patuxent River recovery.
    That Chesapeake tributary rises and ends in Maryland. If we can’t clean up the Patuxent, says Fowler, what chance does the Bay stand?
    So Bernie waded into the river of his youth, sending ripples that haven’t stopped yet. From his determination flow Maryland’s two most powerful calls to environmental action.
    First, Bernie sued the state and federal government for not living up to the law of the Clean Water Act.
    “Can you do that?” asked Roy Dyson, now a state senator from St. Mary’s County but a new delegate back in 1977 when Fowler first filed suit. Three counties joined and won the first reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus in water reintroduced to the river by sewage treatment plants.
    Three decades later, Bernie, the Patuxent and the Bay were still waiting. Another set of cleanup deadlines — 40 percent reduction in pollutants by 2010 — was about to pass unmet. In 2009, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation asked Bernie to help light a fire under the EPA. Fowler v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was also joined by the Maryland and Virginia watermen’s associations.
    Again, it got results. First the new president, Barack Obama, issued an executive order pushing federal agencies to get the cleanup done. Then the EPA settled Fowler’s lawsuit, agreeing to a long list of programs and actions.
    Bernie’s second big step was his Patuxent River Wade-In, begun in 1987 when he led a procession into the river. The human effect and the symbolism of that act created a public relations icon unequaled in the four decades since the state-federal agreement to clean up Chesapeake Bay was signed.
    Governors, federal and state senators, U.S. representatives, state delegates, county commissioners, EPA and DNR heads, scientists, riverkeepers, school children and citizens all join hands in a human chain forged for change. They wade in until Bernie — dressed in coveralls and white sneakers — can no longer see his feet. A yardstick is fetched, and somebody — the job belongs historically to Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer — measures how many inches up Bernie’s pants legs the river rose. The result is graphed as Bernie Fowler’s Sneaker Index.
    Bernie’s Wade-In has been imitated throughout the watershed, written about in National Geographic and filmed for a documentary.
    Last week, Bernie’s two brainchildren came into conjunction. On June 9, the traditional second Sunday, Bernie led his 26th annual Patuxent River Wade-In. This year’s measurement was 34 inches, down an inch from last year after big rains.
    Worse news had already come from the Patuxent Riverkeeper and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. Starting with their first report card in 2008, the Patuxent River earned a dismal grade of D–. This year, it rose to a D.
    Bernie remains disappointed but not, he says, discouraged in his plea for will, money and action to keep raising pollution standards to keep up with development and population growth.
    Good thing he’s resilient. Earlier last week, Fowler v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had its own setback.
    One of the terms of its settlement was new federal regulations to reduce waste from concentrated livestock and poultry feeding operations, one of the largest sources of pollution in Chesapeake rivers and streams.
    There will be no new federal regulations under an amendment now agreed to by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the plaintiffs, and the EPA.
    But previous regulations will be enforced.
    “The EPA always is trying to backtrack,” said Fowler.
    He said he worries that the government is reneging on a much-publicized promise to take dramatic steps toward Bay restoration.
    “Let’s fish or cut bait, darn it,” said the 89-year-old Fowler. “I’m not getting any younger.”

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; [email protected]

Emily Myron contributed the analysis of the June, 2013 amendment to the 2010 settlement of Fowler v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.