Spill a setback for bay health, but hope is not lost
In June, as he does every year, former state senator and Calvert County commissioner Bernie Fowler Sr. waded into the Patuxent River and measured the water’s clarity by recording the depth at the point when he can no longer see his sneakers. Although this year’s mark was down from last year’s, Fowler primarily attributed it to weather conditions and he and his many followers celebrated the overall progress their restoration efforts have made over the past four decades, expressing hope for the river’s future.
Last week, Fowler assumed a much more somber tone, after an estimated 1.5 million to 2 million gallons of sewage overflowed into the Patuxent on July 29. The source was a Howard County wastewater treatment plant pipe that had been blocked with grease officials attributed to improper garbage disposal and sink use. Crews placed warning signs downstream and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission increased discharge from the T. Howard Duckett Dam to help flush out the river. WSSC said the spill did not affect customers’ drinking water. However, an emergency closing was issued for part of the river near the spill.
A spokesperson for the Maryland Department of the Environment said Howard County could face penalties for the sewage overflow, but the incident remains under investigation. Fowler already predicts any penalty the northern Maryland county incurs won’t be severe enough to effect real change.
“They usually get a little slap on their wrist until the next time. Nothing upsets me more than to get another call that we have a spill in the Patuxent River,” Fowler told Southern Maryland Newspapers. “I was hoping I’d get a glimpse of a cleaner river before I left this earth. I don’t think I am going to see that now.”
Those are grave words for the river’s 92-year-old champion, who has spent a lifetime advocating for cleanup efforts to help save the Patuxent watershed. In fact, it was 1960s sewage spills that first prompted Fowler to take action. In 1978, Fowler led the three Southern Maryland counties in a lawsuit against the state and Environmental Protection Agency to restore the Patuxent; the case prompted the start of a state endeavor to set nutrient reduction goals for the river.
Today, the Chesapeake Bay watershed states must adhere to EPA regulations for nutrient loads, and for the most part, that mandate seems to be working. The most recent bay report card upgraded the Chesapeake’s health status and indicated harmful nutrient loads are down while aquatic grasses are up — that is, almost everywhere except in the Patuxent region, which earned the lowest score for underwater grass habitats, something scientists attributed to the river’s cloudiness. Sadly, the Patuxent received a status of “poor” ecosystem health, despite recent upgrades to sewage treatment facilities and the increased push to install nitrogen-removing septic systems.
This should serve as a clear indication there is still much work to be done up and down the state to keep the momentum to clean the river high. Last week, Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert) suggested that governments be held to stricter standards regarding the wastewater treatment plants they operate, calling such plants the “biggest single polluters of the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River,” and even going so far as to suggest private companies run the plants instead.
Maybe Fisher has a point. Maybe the answer to the Patuxent problem lies with our legislators enacting revised regulations with harsher penalties for sewage treatment plant operators. Maybe it’s time a new, passionate and environmentally concerned generation of advocates followed in the footsteps of Fowler’s muddy sneakers and stepped up to fight for the Patuxent.
The July 29 sewage spill was a setback, no doubt. But let’s use it as a reminder to never become complacent when it comes to protecting the health of our local waterways. Let’s not give up on Fowler’s charge to restore this precious resource that laps at our county’s entire western shore. In Fowler’s own words, uttered with enthusiasm just two short months ago, “We can never lose our faith; we can never lose our hope.”
And so, today we charge you: Do not give up on Fowler’s message, or on our river. If there are any among you who would rise to the challenge of aiding ongoing restoration efforts, it is never too late to act.