Born in 1924, Bernie Fowler moved to Calvert County when he was a year old and became a life-long advocate for Calvert County and the Patuxent River. He served as Calvert County commissioner from 1970-1982 and as Maryland state senator from 1983-1994, using his positions to work for reducing pollution and improving water quality in the Patuxent River and Chesapeake Bay. “In 1977, he led three counties—Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s—to file a lawsuit against the state and federal government for not doing their part in following the Clean Water Act. They won and the tide started to turn” in favor of restoring the waterways. 1
When Bernie Fowler was a young man in the 1950s, he stood chest-deep in the Patuxent, netting blue crabs. He was able to see his feet on the river bottom. Since then, more of the watershed of the Patuxent River—the largest Maryland river wholly contained within the state—has been developed. Efforts to improve water quality are ongoing…but how to measure success?
Bernie Fowler adapted his youthful observation into an informative and fun annual assessment of water clarity. Senator Fowler held the first Patuxent "Wade-In" in 1988 to assess whether he could still see his sneakers while wading into the river. This became known as the “Sneaker Index.” His white sneakers disappeared from view in a disappointing 10 inches of water. At age 97, he led the 34th Wade-In late June, 2021, at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. His sneakers were visible until he reached a depth of 34 inches – down nine inches from the previous year and 13 inches from 2019. Though the year’s measure was less than hoped for, the river’s murkiness on Wade-In day can be attributed in part to 6.5 inches of rain that fell during the previous fifteen days.
Senator Fowler anticipated returning for the 2022 Wade-In but, sadly, the 2021 Wade-in was Senator Fowler’s last as he passed away on December 12, 2021 in his beloved Calvert County.
Bernie's "depth" over the years
The wade-in has never really been about the number on the tape measure but the commitment to restore the Patuxent.
“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 can increase stormwater runoff, allowing additional pollution to flow into the water.” 2
The 2023 Bernie Fowler Wade-In will take place on June 11 from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, 10515 Mackall Road, St. Leonard, MD 20685.
1 Fowler, Cate. “What’s Up? Visionaries: Bernie Fowler.” What’s Up? Media, January 19, 2016.
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