STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
NPR's Christopher Joyce recently hopped aboard the research ship Rachel Carson to see what progress they're making.
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CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Dave Nemazie steers a 15-foot skiff through the choppy waters of the Wye River, one of the bay's numerous tributaries. Upon shore, soybean and corn fields give way to housing developments. Nemazie is with the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science. He says 30 years ago, people knew the bay was sick.
DAVE NEMAZIE: But I think there was also really a sense that, you know, in a few years, some hard work, we'll get over this. And we've learned both in practice, but also just living on the bay, that that's certainly not the case.
JOYCE: The EPA has now vowed to start over, to do better, but scientists first have to figure out what's actually happening in and especially under the water. That's what determines the bay's basic chemistry.
WALTER BOYNTON: We've been basically making a map of what the sediments are doing to the water in Chesapeake Bay.
JOYCE: Unidentified Female: There it goes.
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JOYCE: These piles glop are like biopsies. They indicate where the bay is healthy and where it's dying. That will help determine where the EPA needs to crack down on pollutants. Boynton says dead sediments are easy to identify.
BOYNTON: They almost feel like - if you were making a pot of Jell-O and it hasn't quite congealed yet.
JOYCE: The extra nitrogen and phosphorous come mostly from sewage, cars and fertilizer. They act as nutrients for algae, which gorge on them and grow into huge, floating blooms. When the algae die and decompose, that sucks oxygen out of the water. And that's deadly.
BOYNTON: The key issue in the bay program is reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous and dirt getting into the bay. We, frankly, need to know: Where does this stuff come from? How long does it hang out here, and where the heck does it go?
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JOYCE: Biologist Kristin Politano taps a canister of sediment to get oxygen bubbles to rise. She learned about nutrient pollution in Florida, but in some ways, it's just the same here. Scientists can map the pollution hot spots, but someone has to follow them back to source to fix the problem.
KRISTIN POLITANO: I mean, people get upset about what's going on in the bay. What they have to realize is that a lot of these problems are coming from the upper watersheds themselves. You have to look at restoring headwater streams and rivers and things like that before you are going to see an improvement in the water quality that's coming into the bay.
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JOYCE: Like most scientists who've studied the bay, Boynton says progress has been frustratingly slow. But he's optimistic about this new start.
BOYNTON: I still maintain that if we start seeing big, big changes in nutrient loads, we will see positive changes in the bay very quickly. And by very quickly, I mean a year or two.
JOYCE: Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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INSKEEP: And you can take a virtual voyage with a team of Chesapeake Bay researchers and see just how messy their job can be at npr.org.
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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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