Fifth Annual 'Wade-in' Takes Pulse Of Patuxent

June 15, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

BROOMES ISLAND — The caption of a photograph accompanying a Maryland section article Monday about the Patuxent River misspelled Michael Glaser's name.

The Sun regrets the error.

BROOMES ISLAND -- Bernie Fowler likes to recall that when he was a young man, the Patuxent River was so clear he could see his toes on the grassy bottom as he waded out shoulder-deep, dipping for soft crabs.

That was more than 30 years ago, when he ran Bernie's Boat Rentals here. Yesterday, Mr. Fowler, a state senator who represents Southern Maryland, lost sight of his feet -- he wore white sneakers -- after he had waded into the cool, murky water past his knees.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

But, on this his fifth annual "wade-in" to take the river's pulse, Mr. Fowler's eyes brightened when he saw clumps of floating seaweed being blown to shore by a brisk breeze.

"This looks so good I think I'll eat some for lunch," joked the Calvert County Democrat.

The Patuxent, which meanders 110 miles through Central and Southern Maryland to the Chesapeake Bay, is "doing a little better," Mr. Fowler declared to about 40 friends, family members and neighbors who joined hands just after noon to wade into the water. "But we aren't there yet."

Yesterday's "wade-in," with its preaching and folk-singing about the environment and the bay, was more like a revival meeting for the troubled river than any scientific gauge of its health. But the event, for all its lightheartedness, had a serious purpose.

Long the lifeblood of rural Southern Maryland, the Patuxent gradually lost its clarity and vitality in the 1960s and 1970s as booming population growth and development along its banks dumped nutrient-rich sewage and sediment into its waters.

The Patuxent is a microcosm of the Chesapeake Bay, and the river's problems mirror those of the estuary into which it empties. Nutrients, mainly phosphorus and nitrogen from sewage and farm and lawn fertilizers, feed algae blooms that consume the water's life-sustaining oxygen. Mud running off fields and construction sites has killed underwater grasses and smothered oysters and fish eggs.

But for 11 years now, prodded by Mr. Fowler and many others, the state and the seven counties whose land drains into the river have been struggling to restore the Patuxent to the way it was in the 1950s. Nearly $200 million alone has been spent upgrading its sewerage plants, whose daily discharge of treated wastewater in dry summer months at times exceeds the natural flow of the river.

Mr. Fowler has done his part to keep the heat on. Tired of slow progress in overhauling sewerage plants, he got a bill enacted in 1988 that would fine counties if their plants failed to meet cleanup requirements.

Now the Patuxent restoration effort, a forerunner of the multistate campaign to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, is beginning to pay off, state officials say.

The huge algae blooms that used to plague the upper Patuxent have been reduced as phosphorus from the eight sewerage plants has fallen by more than 75 percent since 1981, state officials say. Farmers also changed their ways to prevent fertilizer-laden soil from washing off their fields.

But progress has been less visible in the lower reach of the river, which includes Broomes Island. The water is heavily influenced by the tidal influx of salty water from the bay. Nitrogen from sewage and fertilizer still wreaks havoc, and only in the past three years have sewerage plants along the river been overhauled -- at great expense -- to remove it.

As a result, nitrogen levels have fallen by more than 80 percent since last year in the 30 million gallons of treated sewage discharged daily by the Western Branch wastewater plant in Prince George's County, the largest single source of nutrients.

"The Patuxent is leading the way, in many ways, for the bay [cleanup]," said Robert Magnien, the chief of monitoring for the state Department of the Environment.

But sewage is only part of the problem. Whether the river recovers its old clarity and life will depend on whether more effort is made to curb farm runoff and control booming growth, Mr. Fowler said.

"Time is running out on us," said Mr. Fowler, who also chairs the Patuxent River Commission and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. "We can't continue at the pace we're going. We need to accelerate."

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