Game Days along the Patuxent
Scientists and Politicians Learn to Play Ball
Bernie Fowler holding a bat. Photograph: Michael W. Fincham
Bernie Fowler preferred fast-pitch softball over slow-pitch because he could beat out bunts and steal bases. They called him "Flash" when he played with the local VFW Post and later with the Trinity Memorial Methodist Church. His uniform still fits him at 91. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

A SUMMERTIME SOFTBALL GAME down in Southern Maryland back in the 1970s may have been a watershed moment for the movement to clean up Chesapeake Bay.

A team made up (mostly) of scientists from the oldest marine lab on the Bay scheduled a game against a team made up (mostly) of military veterans. And the veteran playing second base was a politician named Bernie Fowler, a lean and athletic man in his late 40s who had just won his first electoral campaign by promising to fight for a cleanup of the Patuxent River.

These were two teams with different approaches to softball. The scientists came from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL), the old marine research center operated by the University of Maryland and located at the mouth of the Patuxent River down at the southern end of Calvert County, Maryland. They called their team "The Drive Ins" because their player/coach, Joe Mihursky, used to play shortstop for a team sponsored by the only drive-in movie theater the county ever had.

When the drive-in went dark forever, Mihursky put up his own money to sponsor a team from the science lab. Some of his players, like Don Heinle out in right field, did better at science than at softball, so Mihursky added a couple state troopers to the lineup and another player from the nearby naval base. But the main focus of the team was having fun. The coach even recruited cheerleaders of sorts, summer school girls who would dress up in shorts and red, white and blue tops and pretend they were the first base and third base coaches. After every game came a picnic or beer drinking or both.

When the scientists thought they were ready for a road game, they took on an upcounty team that was a little more serious about its softball. Bernie Fowler's team was sponsored by Post 8133 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. It drew players from all over the county, it held tryouts, it had recently won the county championship in fast-pitch softball. "Veterans would kind of migrate towards our team," said Fowler, a WW II vet, "and if they played pretty fair ball, our manager would go ahead and sign them up." If they didn't play well, they sat on the bench. The focus was winning games. "We had a good team," said Fowler. Since he played "pretty fair ball," he didn't sit on the bench.

When the scientists played the veterans, the veterans won. At least that's the way Fowler remembers it and he has always been serious about his softball. He thought there was a patched-together quality to the lab team from down at the tail end of the county, and he remembers getting a couple hits against the scientists and making some good plays at second base. "I think we won the game," he says some 40 years later, "but that was unimportant." What was important for the new politician was the chance to meet scientists who were studying the river he was trying to clean up.

A summertime softball game seems an odd way for scientists to connect with policymakers. But around the Chesapeake Bay both scientists and policymaker have connected in a variety of ways during episodes of environmental crisis and debate. Scientists have ridden with politicians on boat trips and helicopter trips, they've testified before legislative committees, advised state agencies, and served on various commissions focused on oysters and blue crabs and striped bass. Some of those forays proved very productive, some not so much. This particular softball game proved highly productive.

The day Bernie Fowler played against "The Drive-Ins" from CBL, he met a scientist who was eager to work with a politician who was willing to push an environmental cause. At the post-game picnic, a marine biologist named Don Heinle sought out Fowler, pulled him aside, and told him there was good reason to worry about the Patuxent. "Look, you're right on target," Heinle said. "Things are changing out there." The biologist was eager to talk because he had recently found something interesting among several old research reports: scientific data showing how much the river had changed in recent decades.

Joe Mihursky courtesy of Walter Boynton
They were serious about their summertime softball in Southern Maryland back in the 1960s. Joe Mihursky wore long sideburns, played for several county teams, and organized a team of scientists from the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory. Photograph courtesy of Walter Boynton

The politician didn't have hard data, he had hard experience. Fowler had grown up along the river where he'd spent time wading in the clear shallows and hand netting for the blue crabs he could see scuttling through the seagrass. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he came home, got a business loan, and opened a restaurant and boat rental business back on the river.

Apparently you can go home again, but you can't step in the same river twice. After opening his riverside business, Fowler watched his boyhood river change: the clear shallows grew cloudy, the oysters grew scarce, the seagrasses dwindled. He decided to run for the job of Calvert County Commissioner to see if he could do something about cleaning up the river.

At this softball picnic the newly elected politician found himself for the first time listening to a passionate scientist lecture him about something called eutrophication, how it worked, how an oversupply of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus could cloud the water and lower oxygen levels. The lecture didn't last long. "I am not a scientist," Fowler said, stopping Heinle. "So you are going to have to make it simple so I can understand it." Heinle said he would give Fowler all the time and all the information he needed. They sat and talked together for an hour.

Other conversations soon followed. The softball game was the beginning of a friendship that would change both their lives. Heinle promised he would back up Fowler's crusade with scientific evidence that might help him highlight the problems with the river. And Fowler promised he would use any evidence Heinle could give him.

In his science career Heinle focused on plankton, the tiny, floating plants and animals that help form the base of the aquatic food chain. Under certain conditions those populations help produce oysters and blue crabs, striped bass and hard heads and the rest of the bounty the Bay is famous for. Under other conditions, when plankton are overfertilized by too much nitrogen and phosphorus, they produce cloudy water, low oxygen levels, dead zones, fish kills, and crab jubilees that send crustaceans scrambling to shore to find oxygen.

Around the lab, Heinle was well liked. He was funny guy, said one colleague, "a science guy" who could seem slightly dorky with his large, round glasses, his absent-minded air, and his habit of showing up late for any and every meeting. He was generally on time to have fun, however, and the story went round the lab about the Ocean City conference where he and a colleague took the door off their motel room and went "door-surfing" in the Atlantic. He also showed up for the softball games that Mihursky organized and for the lunchtime volleyball games that went on year round, even in the snow.

Don Heinle courtesy of the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory
He may have been a so-so softball player, but as a scientist Don Heinle was strong willed, prepared to speak out in support of Bernie Fowler’s campaign to clean up the Patuxent River. Photograph courtesy of the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory

He wasn't a first-rate ballplayer, at least according to his coach, but he was a dogged scientist, determined to dig up data about the river and passionate about sharing what he found. Deep in the attic of CBL he found old surveys and studies done decades earlier by biologists R.P. Cowles of the Johns Hopkins University and Carroll Blue Nash of American University. Their data put hard numbers on what Heinle suspected and what Fowler had seen with his own eyes: the river once had healthier levels of light penetration and dissolved oxygen — and now the river was moving in the wrong direction. "He was damned upset about it," said his CBL colleague, Walter Boynton. "Just like Bernie."

The scientist had found the perfect politician, a strong-willed native who was passionate about cleaning up the river that Heinle was studying. The politician was stunned to learn that water clarity, according to the old data, used to reach 12 feet down in places. "He knew what was wrong with the river," said Fowler describing Heinle, "and what needed to be done to clean it up." What was needed to save the lower Patuxent, said Heinle, was a cutback on all the untreated and poorly treated sewage flowing into the upper Patuxent from all those upriver wastewater treatment plants.

Outspoken environmental advocacy would prove a good career move for a regional politician, but not, however, for a young scientist, at least not in the 1970s. Fowler began to gather followers for his crusade by citing dramatic data and quotes from Heinle to raise concerns about the river's decline and to recruit other Southern Maryland politicians to his cause. "Don made some very strong statements and I quoted him," said Fowler. "Whatever he told me became my marching orders." Heinle's willingness to speak out, however, would not help his career.

They were poking a sleeping giant. According to Heinle's scenario, the lower Patuxent was being degraded because the upriver counties needed convenient and cheap sewage disposal. They could keep expanding their wastewater treatment plants, their planning departments could keep doling out new sewage hookups, developers could keep building new subdivisions, a huge housing boom could proceed apace around Baltimore and Columbia and Washington D.C.

Regional and cultural battle lines began to form. According to Fowler and his supporters, a rural, river-centered way of life was being sacrificed to support a growing suburb-centered way of life. Their message struck a chord: the commissioners from the downriver counties — Calvert, Charles and St Mary's — began asking for more limits on wastewater inputs from the upriver counties: Anne Arundel, Howard, Prince George's, and Montgomery.

Heinle was Fowler's first science mentor, but there would soon be others. Through Heinle, Fowler began connecting closely with a number of other scientists from CBL including George Krantz and Joe Mihursky, the player-coach for the lab softball team. It would be a long-running connection with Fowler working closely over the years with Bob Ulanowicz, Chris D'Elia, and Walter Boynton. "It was like I became a member of the family," Fowler said.

It was the beginning of an important alliance between marine scientists and regional politicians, two groups that do not always connect with each other. Alliances like this are a key, often invisible step in moving science into the public policy arena, says Ann Swanson, long-time executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a policy agency created to advise the legislatures of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. "These teams of people, from my experience, are not pre-determined or pre-organized," says Swanson. "They happen in a random destiny kind of way." And sometimes destiny shows up at a softball game. "Unless you have that happening, [science] can't jump from the bench into the policy arena."

Wade-in. Credit: Michael W. Fincham
At one of his early wade-ins in the 1980s, Fowler (far right) finds some seagrasses, a hopeful sign. Standing to the left of Fowler are Tom Wisner, the folk singer who wrote a poem about the wade-in, and Walter Boynton, another CBL scientist and close friend who has worked with Fowler for more than 25 years. Photograph, Michael W. Fincham

It was a timely alliance. Scientists at CBL were in the middle of developing a deeper and revolutionary analysis of the important but different roles that nitrogen and phosphorus play in river systems and in the mainstem of the Bay. Under debate was a new thesis: phosphorus, which was cheaper to remove from sewage, seemed to play a damaging role in freshwater reaches of the river, but new research was suggesting that nitrogen, which was more expensive to remove, might prove the more dangerous nutrient in the saltier downstream stretches of the river. A number of scientists, including Mihursky and Boynton, were widening their lab's focus to look at how entire watersheds affected river systems.

As Heinle and his colleagues began educating Fowler, the politician returned the favor. Before long he was schooling his mentors in the various ways of creating and applying political power to environmental issues. He gave speeches, staged boat rides, and everywhere he spoke he told his story about wading out as a child and young man into a river that was so clear he could see the blue crabs scuttling through the seagrass meadows. In later years he would even organize his annual community wade-ins to monitor the state of the river and keep the cause alive. (Fowler led this year's wade-in on Sunday June 14.)

It's now clear that Fowler was an early adopter and in some cases a pioneer at trying out many of the techniques that are now found in the tool kit of many environmental advocates. And for all those events, he recruited key scientists to play on his team. They learned that the softball player was also willing to play hardball.

In trying to save the Patuxent, Fowler's team found itself playing a powerful team: the politicians and agencies in charge of environmental policies for the state of Maryland. The state's official message during the 1970s was simple: the Patuxent River was a healthy body of water. And the state's official messengers included Governor Marvin Mandel and his new head of the Department of Natural Resources, James B. Coulter, a sanitary engineer whose specialty was wastewater treatment plants. Coulter personally delivered the message to CBL scientists: he called Heinle and told him to stop his public comments about the river's decline. When Heinle refused, Coulter told his boss, Pete Wagner, that the university should fire the outspoken scientist.

Fowler's political allies got the state's message when Coulter drove down to Calvert County and spoke at an annual dinner held at the Rod and Reel Club at Chesapeake Beach. His speech set the record straight: nitrogen and phosphorus fertilize the estuary and produce food for fish, all estuaries tend to be cloudy rather than clear, and there was no scientific evidence proving that this river, the Patuxent, had ever had clear waters. There were only "anecdotes" in place of evidence and the most famous anecdote, Bernie Fowler's story about seeing crabs at his feet, was probably wrong. When Bernie saw those crabs he was a little boy, not a six-foot man, said Coulter, and his eyes were simply closer to his feet.

The game was on. "If you want their attention, you're going to have to sue the bastards," said a veteran local politician after hearing one of Fowler's impassioned speeches. "Sue the bastards," says Fowler, became the popular slogan for officials in Calvert, St. Mary's, and Charles Counties, the three counties bordering the lower reaches of the Patuxent. At Fowler's urging the commissioners of all three counties agreed to spend public funds to launch a lawsuit in the late 1970s against the state of Maryland and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The focus for the lawsuit was the water quality plan for the Patuxent River that the DNR and EPA had agreed to follow over the next 20 years. By the year 2000 under this plan, nearly 80 percent of the river's summertime flow would be water from sewage treatment plants in the fast-expanding upriver counties. And none of those plants was trying to remove nitrogen from the sewage.

The lawsuit put Don Heinle and his CBL colleagues on the spot. The suit would require evidence that the State of Maryland was allowing damage to the river, and that evidence would have to come from employees of the state of Maryland: the scientists who were so eager to educate Bernie Fowler. The old reports that Heinle had dug out of the attic at CBL played a key role in the case, providing proof that the Patuxent had better clarity, more seagrasses, and higher oxygen levels during earlier decades.

A number of university scientists would give evidence supporting the case against the state. Heinle, Joe Mihursky, and George Krantz all worked at CBL, and another expert witness, Rita Colwell, was a marine microbiologist at the university's College Park campus and director of the new Maryland Sea Grant Program.

In 1979 Fowler sat in the third row in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and watched his lawyer David Fleischaker go to work with all his science evidence. And on the other side of the court, Fowler saw half a dozen attorneys representing the state of Maryland and the federal government. Behind the bench sat a tough-minded judge nicknamed "Maximum John," probably the most famous person in the courtroom. During the Watergate Scandal, Judge John J. Sirica ordered President Richard Nixon to turn over all the tapes of his conversations with his staff, hastening the fall of his presidency.

"Maximum John" lived up to his nickname again. Sirica ruled in favor of the Southern Maryland team. The water quality plan put together by Maryland and the EPA was, he said, little more than an accommodation for wastewater treatment plants. The federal government had recently authorized $40 billion for upgrading the nation's wastewater treatment plants, but Sirica ruled that Maryland would not get any of those funds until it came up with a better, science-based plan to restore water quality in the Patuxent.

James Coulter would not be working on the new plan. A new governor named Harry Hughes took office in 1979 and removed water quality and environmental programs from Coulter's DNR. He decided to create a new Office of Environmental Programs, to place it under the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and to appoint as its leader Bill Eichbaum, an environmental lawyer with 10 years of experience in environmental law enforcement and a tendency to take tough stands on controversial issues.

"He had the courage of his convictions. He refused to be pushed around or throttled. He stuck to his guns."

— Bernie Fowler

on Don Heinle

The lawsuit wasn't the last inning in the game Fowler was playing. He quickly invited the new governor on a boat trip, and Harry Hughes, a tall, quiet-speaking lawyer from the Eastern Shore, accepted the invitation to learn first hand the problems facing the lower Patuxent River. On the boat he met local watermen and heard lectures from Heinle, Mihursky, Krantz, and a rising young scientist named Walter Boynton. He also saw cloudy water, dying oysters, and depleted oxygen readings.

Boat trips were becoming a classic tool for raising public awareness and winning political commitments for environmental causes. With his boat trip, Fowler was taking a page from the playbook of Senator Charles "Mac" Mathias, the Republican senator who used a five-day boat tour back in 1973 to create support for a Chesapeake Bay cleanup (see Chesapeake Crossings).

Shortly after Governor Harry Hughes stepped off the boat, he went on record for cleaning up the Patuxent River. He handed the problem off to the chief for environmental programs and Eichbaum responded with an unusual approach: he organized an event he called a "Patuxent River Charette" that called key citizens, scientists, and environmentalists together and stuck them in a room with officials from state agencies, seven separate counties, and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Cloistered for three days in a Catholic convent in Howard County, they went to work on hammering out a new water quality plan for the river.

The result was a new plan and a promise that three of the waste treatment plants on the upper Patuxent would begin removing nitrogen as well as phosphorus. The long range goal: restoring the river to water quality levels found in the 1950s. With the agreement in place, the state could begin accessing that federal money for upgrading sewage treatment plants.

Bernie Fowler wasn't finished. In 1982 he was elected to the Maryland State Senate where he served until 1994 as a leading voice for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. In 1988 he organized the first Bernie Fowler Wade-In down at Broome's Island, an annual event to test the clarity of the river and monitor the progress of the cleanup. Citizens, scientists, and politicians gather at the river, walk out, and look down, hoping when they are waist deep to see their feet at the bottom of the river. The real goal, of course, is keeping the cause alive.

Don Heinle never walked in a wade-in. In 1982 he left the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory after he was denied a promotion he thought he deserved, a promotion he "richly deserved," said one colleague. His friends, of course, threw him a going-away party. Expecting him to show up late as usual, they gave him a watch inscribed on back with "Finally Heinle." With a wife and baby daughter to support he moved to the West Coast and went to work in private industry. He was only 63 when a heart attack struck him down.

"When they called me and told me he had died, it kind of cracked my heart," said Fowler. "I often said I couldn't spell eutrophication until I met Don Heinle. He had the courage of his convictions. He would refuse to be pushed around or throttled. He stuck to his guns." At his next wade-in Fowler held a memorial service for his friend, reading a eulogy and casting a wreath on the waters of the river Heinle had tried to save.

The passion, tools, and techniques pioneered by Fowler and his team during their Patuxent River insurgency have been adopted elsewhere. Every year Fowler attends a number of wade-ins that citizens have started up on other rivers around the region. His approach also has its echoes in the country's riverkeeper movement that began on the Hudson River in 1983. From the beginning they used science, citizen activism, and lawsuits to fight for river cleanups. According to the Waterkeeper Alliance, 19 riverkeepers are now working in the Chesapeake region.

When he was 70 years old Fowler left the Maryland Senate, but he kept playing softball. When he was 85 years old, he finally retired from softball, but he kept playing in the Bay cleanup game. In 2009, he was co-plaintiff in another major lawsuit, this one filed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

This lawsuit, much like his long-ago suit about the Patuxent River, would prove historic. It required EPA to set up a system that defined a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of sediments and nutrients that would be allowed for each river system.

The goal was familiar: to put the entire Chesapeake Bay on a "pollution diet" much like Bernie Fowler and Don Heinle had tried to do years before on the Patuxent River.

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