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Fowler Leads Spiritual Mission for River Cleanup

The contrast was significant. As political as the 2012 Patuxent River Wade-in was, the 2013 event was more devotional. This year’s event included the baptism of its central figure, former state senator Bernie Fowler. While the unscientific data the Sunday June 9 walk into the Patuxent yielded was a slight digression from last year, Fowler did not appear discouraged. In fact, the sense of commitment by those in attendance appeared to buoy his spirits.

The 26th annual wade-in was held at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum (JPPM), the fourth event held at the new venue after several years at Broomes Island. Fowler forged the partnership with state government in order to institutionalize the wade-in so that it will continue after he is no longer able or around to preside over it. Fowler, who dons blue overalls and old, white sneakers, walks into the river with family, friends and elected officials. When he can no longer see his sneakers, Fowler and the rest of the hand-clasping human chain stops. Fowler then has the waterline on his overalls measured. Last year the line was up to 35 inches. This year the mark was 34 inches.

“Not only do we have a civic responsibility but a moral and spiritual responsibility to clean up this river,” said Fowler.

One pre-wade-in speaker, Morgan State University Estuarine Research Center Director Dr. Kelton Clark, noted that the latest University of Maryland Chesapeake Bay Report Card gives the Patuxent River a grade of ‘D.’ Clark told the gathering that the river didn’t get that low grade, the people living within the watershed did. “We are the Patuxent River,” Clark declared.

Another scientist, Dr. Walter Boynton of the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL) indicated the formula for reviving an estuary such as the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries like the Patuxent was not a mystery. “We know what’s wrong, we know how to fix them,” said Boynton. Like a human being whose health declines from overeating, Boynton said “these estuaries are getting too much of a good thing.” In the case of the waterways, the overconsumption involves nitrogen, phosphorus and dirt, said Boynton. The scientist asked attendees to do three things: obtain and study a brochure on how to care for lawns in an eco-friendly manner, join one or more “riverkeepers” organizations and write letters to government representatives advocating for clean water policies. “It’s not a simple task,” said Boynton. “It requires changing the way we do things.”

“We hope every year the water is going to go higher on Bernie’s trousers,” said Calvert County Commissioner Susan Shaw [R], who followed Boynton’s comments with a plea to the audience to only use eco-friendly fertilizer on lawns. She noted a waterman told her that 2013 “is the best year for oysters since 1985. We must be doing something right. We still have a lot of work to do.”

“This is not just about saving crabs and oysters,” said Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman. “Communities that are proactive have cleaner water.”

“The river reflects our care,” said U.S. House of Representatives Minority Whip Steny Hoyer [D-MD District 5], who was effusive in his praise of Fowler. “Bernie Fowler is our leader. He has been the trumpet sending out the call.”

There were two new components to the 2013 wade-in. Fowler was sporting a different pair of sneakers. He told the gathering that the original pair was no longer wade-worthy and he planned to donate the sneakers to Calvert Marine Museum for permanent display.

The other new wrinkle happened after the wading ritual. Heath Wilson, the associate pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, presided over the baptism--as a reaffirmation--of Fowler and one of his family members, both of whom were immersed in the Patuxent. Later, Wilson relayed he had discussed the possibility of conducting the baptism with Fowler, who admitted he had for some time wanted to make the ceremony part of the wade-in agenda. Wilson said this year’s baptism was not publicized since he and Fowler needed to receive the go-ahead from state officials, to assure it did not violate the separation of church and state policy.

“I love Bernie’s spirit,” said Sue Kullen, a former state delegate who was representing Maryland U.S. Senator Ben Cardin [D]. “We have so much work to do. We need to keep focused.”