Caught in Time's Currents

Bernie Fowler, center, joins Del. Sue Kullen, left, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and others in his annual wade-in to test the pollution in the Patuxent River. Since 1988, Fowler has measured how deep he can walk in and still see his shoes.
Bernie Fowler, center, joins Del. Sue Kullen, left, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and others in his annual wade-in to test the pollution in the Patuxent River. Since 1988, Fowler has measured how deep he can walk in and still see his shoes. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Bernie Fowler begins his mornings on his knees with a prayer for the river. Now in the twilight of his years at age 82, he prays for the polluted river like he does for his own health. He does not ask God to magically restore it. Instead, he asks that those in charge make the most of what is left.

For four decades, C. Bernard Fowler has been the Patuxent River's preacher and protector. From beginning to end, the river has run through his life, shaping it with its current. It fed his family when he was a child. It gave him steady work as an adult, renting out boats and selling crab cakes. It brought him the woman who would become his wife.

So, when he realized wastewater was destroying the river he loved, he began to fight, first in court, then in the state capital. He told his story to anyone who would listen -- how as a young man wading for crabs, he could walk chest-high in the river and still see his feet. Later as a Democratic state senator, he would wade into its increasingly cloudy waters again and vow to keep fighting until he could see his feet once more.

But for all his efforts, the river's health has not improved much, and the frantic pace of development in recent years has increased the sewage and runoff in its tributaries.

And now retired, as an old man wading into a still-dirty river, Fowler fears that time is running out for them both.

Families used to stake their lives on this river. If you can find any watermen still working its shores, ask them about it and watch for the far-off look that appears in their eyes.

They talk about a time when seafood packinghouses lined the riverbank, when so many oyster boats worked the river they jockeyed for position.

This was the era in which Fowler grew up. Raised on Broomes Island in Calvert County, the fourth-generation son in a family of watermen, he learned to shuck oysters, set trotlines and make a living on the river.

He has left the Patuxent only once, in the early 1940s to enlist in the Navy shortly after his eldest brother was drafted for World War II. He feared feeling guilty should his brother die while he was living comfortably on the water. After his brother was killed in action, Fowler returned to the river to mourn and work.

It was a few years later when he and others on Broomes Island began noticing the changes. The sea grass, once a thick lush carpet along the riverbed, was thinning out. Their haul of crabs and oysters seemed to shrink every year. And deep in the river, a murky cloud was beginning to form.

They pointed it out to state officials, who told them that they had no science to back their claims and that the river was fine. Later, as a Calvert County commissioner, Fowler met with others from nearby counties and decided that the only way the state would listen was if they sued.

"It was a daring thing back then, a maverick kind of move," said state Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), who attended the meetings in 1978 as a young, newly elected delegate. "I had never heard of anyone suing the state before."


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