Wade in the Water Saturday at SERC

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On Tuesday, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) and the Environmental Protection Agency reached a settlement that requires the agency to create certain regulations by specific dates to reduce pollution across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Some of those regulations will take place within the next few years; some won't be in place until 2025.

It was a victory for locals like former Maryland State Sen. Bernie Fowler, who grew up along the shore of Broome's Island, wading and swimming in the inlet waters along the Bay. As a young man, Fowler, who stands about six feet tall, could wade into the water until it reached his mid-chest, when he'd stop and look down to see crabs and other critters swimming around his feet. Today, at 86, Fowler says he can go just barely wade in more than two feet before he can no longer see the bottom of the river.

Fowler first noticed the water's declining health in the 1960s and 1970s, when he owned Bernie's Boats, a fleet of about 60 oyster boats. The aquatic vegetation began to wither, and the water was getting cloudy.

Soon, Fowler became a county commissioner, and spoke to the residents of southern Maryland about the need to preserve the region's water; about his experience wading into the river. A friend suggested instead of just talking about wading into the water, Fowler should bring some people down to the river and wade with them himself.

So in 1988, five years after he became a state senator, Fowler dug out the coveralls he waded in as a young man and used them to lead local residents into the water. He stopped when he could no longer see his feet, and when he came back out, somebody measured the watermark on his clothing.

Soon, other communities began to catch on, and 23 years later, the tradition has amassed a wealth of informal data about the area's water quality. This year the tradition will continue in 20 different Maryland communities, starting this Saturday at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center's open house in Edgewater, Maryland. The open house is from 10 to 3; Fowler, himself, will lead the wade-in at 11:30 a.m.

"It was a way to engage the people here in a very meaningful way," Fowler said. "Not everyone understands the scientific terms of what's happening to the water, but if you wade out into the river, you understand the message."

In past years, as many as 150 people have joined Fowler at each of the wade-ins, some in coveralls, like Fowler; some in bathing suits or trousers; and some, like the governor and state representatives, wear shorts, Fowler said.

The water has been worse in recent years, Fowler said. Last year, he was only able to walk into the water until he reached about 27 inches.

The best period in recent memory was in the early 1990s, Fowler said, right after a bill was passed that set regulations for the area's wastewater treatment plants. During that time, he could wade in about 44.5 inches.

"The grass was coming back, transparency of water was better," Fowler said. "I was just jubilant. It looked like we turned a corner."

Fowler says now that a legally enforceable commitment is in place, he's jubilant again—and when residents wade-in during the next 15 years, they are bound to see improvements.

"The waters here are an economic engine just waiting to be restarted," Fowler said. "If we can get this water quality cleaned up and get our aquatic life back not only will it be a healthier situation for aquatic life and the humans who live around the watershed, but the water men will be able to make a living again."

If you can't make the wade-in this Saturday, there are other wade-ins scheduled across the region, including the 23rd anniversary of the wade-in Fowler has traditionally held on the second Sunday of each June, this year at at 1 p.m. on June 13 at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.

Stop by to get your coveralls a little dirty, and watch a "jubilant" Fowler speak about restoring the area's aquatic bounty.

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