Bernie Fowler’s Patuxent River “Wade-In” 2021

Planning in Progress

by Dan Rosen, AICP, Resource Conservation & Management Planner

When Bernie Fowler was a young man in the 1950s, he stood chest-deep in the Patuxent River, netting blue crabs. Looking down, he was able to see his sneaker-clad feet on the river bottom. Since then, much of the watershed of the Patuxent River — the largest Maryland river wholly contained within the state — has been developed. Efforts to improve the water quality of the Patuxent and other Maryland rivers and tributaries are ongoing…but how do we best measure success?

Years after his youthful observation, a by-then Senator Fowler, transformed his informal measure of water clarity into an informative and fun annual assessment of the Patuxent’s water quality. Senator Fowler held the first Patuxent River “Wade-In” in 1988 to assess whether he could still see his feet while wading into the river. This became fondly known as the Sneaker Index. His white sneakers, which he still has and uses for the annual event, disappeared from view in a disappointing 10 inches of water.

Although this year’s measure was less than hoped for, the river’s murkiness on Wade-In day can be attributed in part to an impressive 6.5 inches of rain that fell during the previous fifteen days. But the Wade-In was never really just about a number on the tape measure. Rather, it is focused on raising public awareness about water quality issues, in general, and the commitment to restore the health of the Patuxent, in particular.

Figure 1 – Chart showing water quality measured in inches at annual “Wade-In” events over the past 34 years.

Water clarity is critical for the survival of underwater grasses, which help keep Bay water clean by absorbing nutrients and provide shelter and food for wildlife. Water clarity is also a good indicator of the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution that exists in a river. Heavy rain, like what occurred in Maryland a day before the Wade-In, can increase stormwater runoff, allowing additional pollution to flow into the water,” says the Chesapeake Bay Program.

Senator Fowler, perhaps the Patuxent’s greatest living advocate, says he will return for the 2022 Wade-In. Marylanders, happily, expect nothing less. Thank you, Senator Fowler, for your passion and commitment to water quality in the Patuxent and across Maryland!

1 https://www.chesapeakebay.net/news/blog/Bernie_Fowler_Wade_In_2021

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