Bernie Fowler Conducts 30th Annual Bay Wade-In, NASA Adopts “Sneaker Index”

A Bay Net article (2017-06-13) reported on the 30th annual Chesapeake Bay wade-in by former Maryland State Senator and MACo President Bernie Fowler. In what is now a tradition, each year Senator Fowler wades into the Chesapeake Bay until the white sneakers that he wears are no longer visible. Fowler and others have used this unofficial “sneaker index” to highlight the overall health of the Bay. The article noted that sneaker visibility in the Bay was less than 10 inches in the early 1980s but reached a high of 44.5 inches in 2015. The 2017 index was 41.5 inches. From the article:

[Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer], who lives on the Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County, added that Fowler’s actions and advocacy as first a county commissioner and then a state senator helped significantly reduce the tons of sediment that pollute the river.

Greg Bowen, a former Calvert County Department of Planning and Zoning director and county native, stated that Fowler “has always relied on science” when assessing the state of the region’s waterways. Bowen credited Fowler with stopping “direct discharge” sewerage systems in Calvert when he was a local elected official. …

Maryland Department of Environment Secretary Ben H. Grumbles and Department of Planning Secretary Wendi W. Peters presented Fowler with a proclamation from Hogan. Grumbles drew applause when he told the gathering that the Hogan Administration was committed to pressing the Trump Administration for the full restoration of funds previously earmarked for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. “We are all inspired by your leadership,” Grumbles told Fowler.

A Phys.org article (2017-06-05) reported that NASA is adopting Fowler’s “sneaker index” as an easy-to-understand method to communicate about the health of the Bay and that the index is actually based on sound science. From the article:

Now NASA is adopting Fowler’s sneaker idea to communicate satellite measurements of water clarity, enabling the observations to be shared easily with interested the general public, local governments or anyone who is interested. NASA scientists calling this algorithm “Fowler’s Sneaker Depth”—the depth of water, in meters, at which a person can no longer see their white shoes. The study was published in the April 2017 edition of The Optical Society journal Optics Express. …

“When you talk to people about the chemistry of the river with scientific words like eutrophication, it goes in one ear and out the other,” said Fowler. “If you put on white sneakers and wade out in the river until you can’t see your feet, that gives you pretty good understanding of what’s going on.” …

Although the sneaker depth was primarily designed as a communication outreach tool for the public, the NASA team doesn’t discount its use for science. The sneaker depth concept is actually similar to the Secchi disk depth measurement made monthly by the Chesapeake Bay Program. In oceanography, scientists lower a plain, white disk one foot in diameter – called a Secchi disk—into the water on a rope and record the depth at which it disappears from sight. These measurements are useful for marine scientists who want to know what depth the light is reaching to understand how the phytoplankton and other underwater vegetation are growing.

“Fowler’s Sneaker Depth will come in as a metric to look at long term water clarity trends for scientifically meaningful results and communicate those to the general public,” said Ivona Cetinic, an oceanographer with the Universities Space Research Association at NASA Goddard and one of the study’s authors.