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Fowler’s ‘sneaker index’ measures clearest river water since 1950s

For the 28th year, former Maryland senator and longtime Patuxent River advocate Bernie Fowler and his allies gathered on its shores to symbolically assess its health and affirm their dedication to cleaning it up Sunday at the annual Patuxent River Wade-In.

This year, using Fowler’s informal “Sneaker Index,” the water measured the clearest it’s been since the 1950s.

“We’re here because of Bernie Fowler,” Kelton Clark, director of the Patuxent Environmental & Aquatic Research Laboratory at Morgan State University, told the audience. “We’re here because of the Patuxent River, and we’re here because of the underlying question that we have to ask ourselves every day: ‘As we fight for this river, are we ever going to give up?’”

Attendees responded with a resounding “No!”

State and local officials joined area environmentalists, people who live in the Chesapeake Bay area and the 91-year-old Fowler’s extended family at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum on June 14. After a program that included a musical ode to the river and heartfelt incitements for individuals to consciously protect the river from further pollution, Fowler led the group into the river, wading in until he could no longer see his white Converse sneakers.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) measured, based on the height of the moisture on Fowler’s overalls once he emerged from the water, that he had waded in 44 inches, nearly doubling last year’s 23 inches. According to a Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum compilation, this is the highest Bernie Fowler “Sneaker Index” since an estimated 57 inches in the 1950s. In 2002, the measurement was 42.7 inches.

Hoyer described the river as “part of God’s house.” Like the civil rights movement, he said, the environmental movement — through events like the Patuxent River Wade-In — is about making people aware of the danger inherent to ignoring the problem, in this case, pollution.

“This event is about our responsibility to our maker, to the creator of this house, to the creator of the land and the water and the animals, and, yes, us,” Hoyer said. “This river did not get in the shape that it’s in by itself.”

Although the results of the wade-in are not meant to be scientific, they serve as an easily understandable record of progress made and work still to be done in cleaning up the river.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently reported that Maryland is mostly on track to cleaning up its portion of the Chesapeake Bay — as well as the creeks and rivers, like the Patuxent, that feed into it.

The exception is polluted runoff, which has increased the amount of excessive nitrogen flushed into the bay by 4 percent since 2009. Nitrogen fees unnatural algae blooms that rob the water of nitrogen as they decay.

At the event, Chesapeake Bay Commission Director Ann Swanson said the bay is currently on a “pollution diet.” While the area is on track to achieving its regional plan of implementing all pollution-reduction strategies by 2025, Swanson said she expects the decisions to “get more intense” as the deadline nears.

“I’m going down to that river,” Swanson said. “I want to see more clarity. And if it doesn’t come this year, then I know, OK … I’ve got another year to work on it.”

Thomas Miller, director of the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Lab in Solomons, said that if climate change — which he asserted is manmade — continues unabated, the Patuxent will soon resemble a much warmer river in Florida, unable to sustain many of the species it does today.

“So this is a request, an urgent request, not to debate what the cause of climate change was,” he said. “The small things that each one of us can do will add up and will make a difference.”

While cleaning up the river will take years of incremental improvements, both personal and legislative, Fowler offered some advice: “Love God, love each other and keep on smiling.”

Annual wade-in promotes continued cleanup of Patuxent