Bernie Fowler remembers the days when he could wade up to his shoulders in his beloved Patuxent River and still see the river's bottom, teeming with crabs and fish swimming among the grasses and oyster shells.
Today the picture is not so clear. The river has been clouded by years of nutrient pollution and sediment runoff. Even at waist height, it is hard to catch a glimpse of the bottom.
To draw attention to this issue, Bernie began wading into the Patuxent River each year to measure water clarity. “If we can wade out chest high and see my feet, and see the little crabs and the grass shrimp clearly, then, we will be there,” said Bernie, who has waded into the river on the second Sunday of every June since 1988.
This year, on June 11, a crowd of more than 100 gathered with him, including school children, river advocates and Maryland gubernatorial candidates Martin O'Malley and Doug Duncan. All spoke of a declining river in need of help and protection.
Following the speakers, Bernie waded into the river hand-in-hand with friends, relatives and others, until he could no longer see his shoes. The waterline on Bernie's denim overalls—known as the “sneaker index”—was measured at 27.5 inches, similar to last year's mark of 27 inches.
While the river's health appears to be holding steady, it will take a concentrated effort by many to bring it back to the clear conditions that Bernie remembers. Improved water clarity could cause an ecological domino effect, with more underwater grass beds that filter water, produce oxygen and soften wave action. Water clarity is indicative of a healthy river and Bay, and is a key component of water quality, which the Bay Program is working to improve.