You could argue that Dixie Buck, a soft-crabber on Broomes Island in the Patuxent River in Calvert County, was the first to notice it -- what a six-year, $28 million federal study would conclude in 1983 was the widespread and worsening decline of the Chesapeake Bay. Tom Horton, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, covered environmental issues and the Chesapeake Bay for 10 years. He is currently on leave from The Sun and is managing an environmental education center for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. This is excerpted from his book "Bay Country," published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

It was in 1956, and it was nothing that you'd tell the world about, but in the river, she was almost sure of it, the water was getting a little cloudy. Buck is 74 now, but still poles her little skiff from the bow, dip net poised, intently peering into the waters of Nan's Cove, where she lives on the island. She is still the one people around the county will send you to for soft crabs.

But if she catches two dozen in a day now, "that'd be a glut of 'em. I used to get, just me alone, as much as 15 dozen in a day. There was seaweed on the bottom then for 'em to hide in, to shed. Clear water? I used to nipper oysters out there in 12 feet of water. You could see every one lying on the bottom before you picked it up. You could still see through the water some" until about 1964, she said.

In 1970, the seaweed vanished. "Now, you can't see bottom three feet from shore," she said. "Will it get better again? I doubt it. But Bernie is trying, bless his heart."

State Sen. Bernard Fowler (D-Calvert) grew up on Broomes Island. He talks very little about himself, even on the campaign trail. Mostly he talks about things like preserving Southern Maryland's rural way of life, and always about the Patuxent River. He has seen the river and the bay at their very best.

"The cycle of the year at Broomes Island was the oyster in the winter -- a highlight of my childhood was the oyster fleet coming in off the river, 40 or 60 boats, all jockeying for position to unload in the sunset . . . .

"In early spring, before fishing got started, the men gigged eels and progged for turtles in the mud of the bottom. The water was so clear they could spot eel holes in eight to 10 feet of water. Shad were the first of the fish, then rockfish and hardhead."

But it was the summers, and soft-crabbing, that formed his single most vivid memory. It did not seem remarkable at the time, but it would become a touchstone for Fowler, and ultimately for the whole state, in the struggle that would climax nearly 40 years later over the fate of the Chesapeake Bay.

After World War II, Fowler used a $4,000 G.I. bill loan to buy a rowboat business on Broomes Island. He had a little snack bar, trotlined for hard crabs, kept peelers in floats to let them shed to become soft crabs, and met his wife, who came down with her family from Washington for holidays on the river.

"She would crab out of the boat, while I would wade out along the flats with a dip net after soft crabs. I'd see one on the bottom and follow after it . . . wade out to where I'd be up to my shoulders -- I'm six feet and one-quarter inches tall -- and I could still see the crab on the bottom. I could see my feet in shoulder-deep water, and that's something I've not been able to do for many years on the river."

It seemed so rich, so valued by the people who lived along it, one wonders in retrospect how the river could have declined so far. But it just slipped away, a piece at a time, all through the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s.

"Once there were 12 crews on Broomes Island, and by the mid-'60s they were down to around three. Then the old boats would die," Fowler said. "They'd run 'em up in a muskrat lead and that would be the end of them. In the early 1970s the {Department of Natural Resources} ran a derelict boat program where they paid for barges and cranes to clean out the marshes of old boats. They sure got their share off Broomes Island. It surprised some people how many, I think.

"You noticed all these things, but it comes so slow, I guess it's like sitting in a room and the oxygen being consumed . . . you don't notice until most of it's gone. That's how a river dies."

At its other end, the Patuxent's watershed had begun to boom with development during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is a long river for Maryland, 110 miles, the only major bay tributary lying entirely within the state's borders. It rises on ridges of the Piedmont Plateau and wanders, more stream than river, through Montgomery, Howard, Anne Arundel, and Prince George's counties -- the heart of the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Around Benedict it broadens and mixes with the bay to create the rich seafood-laden river known to the three southern Maryland counties of Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's.

Every new person settling in the Patuxent watershed meant approximately another 100 gallons of sewage a day to be treated, 36,500 gallons per year per person, and people were moving in by the tens of thousands. It would all be flushed away from upstream by the dutiful old Patuxent.

In 1970, Fowler ran for county commissioner and was elected on a platform of better schools and preserving the heritage of the lower Patuxent River. That was the year the grass beds, a vital link in the aquatic ecosystem, began to disappear from the bottoms of the coves.

Campaigning, Fowler mentioned often how years before he could wade out after crabs shoulder-deep and still see his feet on the river bottom. Sometimes now, he could not see his hand even a foot beneath the surface.

In Maryland and the rest of the nation, those days were the dawning of a new era of optimism about the environment, even as the country admitted it had used many of its waterways unconscionably as receptacles for wastes. Americans would not ignore the challenge. Congress had authorized $40 billion, the largest public-works project in history, to bring every sewage-treatment plant to new heights of technological improvement.

Maryland, its Baltimore- Washington corridor by then in the midst of one of the most frantic development booms the country had ever seen, was determined it would have both growth and a clean environment. It rapidly became a national leader in passing laws to protect wetlands, control siltation of rivers, and build modern sewage plants.

After a sweeping reorganization of all its outdated environmental agencies into a modern Department of Natural Resources, the state appointed a sanitary engineer named James B. Coulter. He was hailed in the press as bringing a new era of expertise to the environmental battles that were ahead.

Coulter, a man Fowler found to be intelligent and of the highest integrity, had an engineer's implicit trust that technology could handle whatever pollution problems development threw at it; and he was not much impressed that the Patuxent River truly was in decline. So much of the evidence was, he would complain, "anecdotal."

The bay system, meanwhile, was well-documented as having gone through huge natural cycles of abundance and scarcity in its living resources long before pollution was much of a factor. Coulter was unconvinced that anything especially different than that was happening on the Patuxent.

"Meanwhile we were losing our way of life," Fowler says. He recalls a meeting of the downstream counties in 1973, after he had tried unsuccessfully to get help from Governor Marvin Mandel and Attorney General Francis B. Burch.

An old-time politican from St. Mary's County, Sen. Paul Bailey told Fowler: "If you want their attention, you're going to have to sue."

Fowler and his colleagues were not environmental activists by nature. They believed deeply in good-faith negotiation and the power of government to peacefully resolve issues. For four more years they plugged away in hopes of getting action to save their river.

By 1976, less than a dozen oystermen were left on Broomes Island, and only Dixie Buck and a few other soft-crabbers. Just upriver at Benedict, and even at Solomons down at the river's mouth, similar declines had occurred. Nearly half of all the fresh water flowing past Broomes Island in the summertime now had passed through an upstream sewage-treatment plan first.

Events of the several months that followed would prove among the most seminal in the environmental history of the Chesapeake Bay. The state of Maryland and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) endorsed a new water-quality plan that would govern the Patuxent River for the next 20 years. It would allow the river's freshwater flow, in dry summer months, to consist of nearly 80 percent treated sewage from expanded upstream plants by the year 2000.

It would also finish off the Patuxent River, in the opinion of scientists Fowler met from the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Labratory.

Their skepticism was based on cutting-edge science, they told Fowler. There were no guarantees; but after analyzing decades of old water-quality data, it looked as if the lower river for several years had been suffering from an overdose of nitrogen, a constituent of sewage that no existing or planned treatment processes would remove. The nitrogen was causing the explosive growth of microscopic algae in the water, and the algae in turn were clouding the water, cutting off light needed by the aquatic grasses and consuming the oxygen needed by oysters.

It was around that time that Fowler invited Coulter to speak about the Patuxent before a crowd of about 450 people at the Rod and Reel restaurant in Chesapeake Beach.

Coulter rambled personably about the environment in general for a while before closing with this: The Patuxent River, he said, was a healthy body of water. Fowler, he knew, liked to tell the story about wading out after crabs up to his shoulders and seeing his toes on the bottom. Well, there was absolutely no scientific documentation to show that estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay hadn't always been cloudy. Fowler had just forgotten that he was only 18 months old when he chased that crab, and the toes he saw were just six inches below the surface.

Recalling that incident is the closest Fowler ever comes to open anger: "What he said was not an enlightened remark. I knew right then that the man was either ignorant about water quality or didn't give a damn, or both." Shortly afterward, the three counties of Southern Maryland took old Paul Bailey's advice and sued the state. Attached to the court proceedings in full support of the counties' suit against Maryland and the EPA was an affidavit signed by several scientists from the university's lab on the river.

By 1979 there were signs the tide might turn for the Patuxent. A federal judge had found the state's water-quality plan for the river faulty in 11 of its 15 assumptions. The same year, Coulter's department was stripped of virtually all its authority over water quality, and a new agency was set up in the health department to administer it.

In December Harry Hughes, the new governor, accepted Fowler's invitation to spend a day on the river. He talked to the university scientists and the watermen and he saw the dying oysters. Most of all, he would say years later, he was struck by the resolve of the southern Marylanders to save their river.

At that point, 23 years after Dixie Buck thought she saw the water getting a little cloudy, the governor officially pronounced the Patuxent River to have an environmental problem. He also said it was worth saving.

In 1981, after a state health department summit meeting on the Patuxent River, the state committed itself to restoring the river to water-quality levels that existed in 1950.

Doing that would not be easy or quick. Long and complex negotiations lay ahead with seven counties, and intricate pollution control problems had to be thrashed out. It was becoming apparent that the pollutants destroying the river came not only from the modern upsurge in sewage but also from soil and fertilizers washing off the tobacco fields and cornfields that were a tradition in the Patuxent region.

To have any chance of keeping the cleanup program moving on target, to weld public support, a clear and simple goal was needed, one that anyone could understand. This is what the conference came up with: The job, they said, would be done on the summer day when Bernie Fowler could walk out on the river, up to his shoulders, and look down through the clear water and see his toes.

On a hot summer day, 40 years after Bernie Fowler chased those crabs across the Patuxent flats, 30 years after Dixie Buck saw the water turning cloudy, I had to skirt a parade and walk nearly a mile after parking my car to get close to the river. The little town of Solomons, at its mouth, was hosting the annual Patuxent River Appreciation Day. The old river is moving in some pretty good company these days.

Fowler is in the state Senate. And there are more Patuxent River commissions, committees, ad hoc task forces and such meeting around the state these days than you can keep track of. The health department has targeted $16 million for the first attempt to remove nitrogen from sewage in Maryland at a big treatment plant upriver from Solomons.

And the entire bay was the focus of a massive, six-year federal study that concluded in 1983. It lent critical official recognition, for the first time, to the fact that the Patuxent's problems were the problems of the whole bay.

There are never tidy endings to dealing with the environments of big, complex systems like rivers. At the festival, environmental groups were handing out leaflets announcing legal action they are bringing against the state health department. Upstream counties are continuing to grow, and some of the biggest sewage plants on the river still are not required to remove their polluting nitrogen, the groups charge.

The Baltimore-Washington region, meanwhile, is expanding south with a vengeance. Charles County, one of the three Southern Maryland jurisdictions that battled to save the river, now has the fastest growth rate in Maryland. A new bridge over the river at Solomons has ended the historic isolation from development of both lower Calvert and St. Mary's counties; and all through the lower river's drainage basin, "For Sale" signs are sprouting, forests are being bulldozed and farms are being subdivided.

Solomons is being talked about as the state's next Annapolis. Sometimes, a state water-quality official tells me at the festival, he is no longer sure for whom "we are {working so hard} to preserve this fabled rural way of existence on the Patuxent."

The story of Fowler seeing his toes through the water is told and retold around the watershed to the point it is becoming part of the region's oral tradition, with potential to influence events far beyond the Patuxent, according to Tom Wisner, a bay poet, singer and storyteller. It is the raw stuff of which folk legend may evolve. Wisner says he intends to make the story of Bernie Fowler a part of his performances, to share with others across the bay country.

To kick off the new legend, Wisner has written a poem about Fowler and among its stanzas he sings: You just wade out in the river, Give it all you got . . . Right up to your chest. And then you pick your spot. And somewhere in the future, That day is coming sure, We'll look and see our feet again; Could we ask for more? 'Cause I ask you what's the profit If we gain these worldly things And foul the air and water And all the life that brings?