ST. MICHAELS -- Sidney Dickson is sprawled on his belly, hanging over the deck of his neighbor's 26-foot pontoon boat and dipping a computerized, hand-held meter into the flat-as-slate, greenish-gray water of Broad Creek.
As he calls out readings measuring everything from pH and salinity levels to water temperature, the boat's owner, Robert Porter, scribbles the data in a logbook the two friends began compiling two months ago.
It is a routine that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation hopes will be repeated some day by a small army of volunteers who will paint a detailed portrait of water quality throughout the bay watershed's labyrinth of creeks and rivers.
Dickson and Porter are among 50 enthusiastic amateurs who have signed on to collect water samples at 77 sites along the Wye, Miles and Tred Avon rivers, and five nearby creeks.
A bald eagle soars overhead, and dozens of migratory Canada geese begin stirring as Porter pulls his boat away from the dock at his waterfront farm a mile or two from the bustle of touristy St. Michaels.
Using a satellite-based navigational tool to find each testing site, the men anchor the boat with a 20-foot pole that is also used to measure the depth of the water -- 8 feet on the outgoing tide -- to ensure consistency for each sample.
"I think a lot of people are concerned, and this is a way to really get out and do something to help," says Dickson. "It's certainly not an unpleasant job. And we feel like we're doing something that matters."
Creekwatchers, a pilot program sponsored by the foundation, the Talbot Rivers Protection Association and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, is working so well that foundation officials are considering expanding it.
"When we started, we were hoping to get maybe 15 people. It's a serious commitment of time," says Kimberly Coble, the foundation's senior scientist in Maryland. "We wound up with 50 volunteers, which has allowed us to put together something even more comprehensive than originally planned. It's local folks, people who live here, who are driving the whole thing."
Working twice a month
With a $30,000 grant from the New York-based Racuch Foundation, the Creekwatchers program has teams out twice a month, sampling water quality for two to three hours a trip.
Once a month, volunteers sample for nitrogen and phosphorus, which have been linked with deadly outbreaks of Pfiesteria and the destruction of underwater grasses in recent years. Data samples are shipped for analysis to the University of Maryland's Horn Point laboratory near Cambridge.
The idea, says Coble, is to train volunteers to ensure that the data they collect is accurate, then turn them loose.
"We need to be sure this is usable information for a variety of different agencies, and we've taken great pains to assure consistency and accuracy," Coble says. "We knew this was going to be successful because we have people working in the areas where they live. It's a way to empower people."
With two months of data collected, scientists say it's too early to detect trends, although volunteers were easily able to see the erosion and runoff caused by the torrential rains that came with two recent tropical storms. Turbidity, from the amount of silt in the water, increased sharply after the storms, volunteers say.
"What we're really looking for is to build some kind of baseline, some starting point for the water quality of the area," says Porter. "Right now, without that, there's no way to tell whether things are improving or getting worse. We're all very concerned about preserving what we have here."
Although few programs can match the scope of the Creekwatchers effort, which concentrates frequent testing in a relatively small area, citizen monitoring programs have been around for years.
Save Our Streams, which will celebrate its 30th year next spring, placed 2,500 volunteers, mostly in Central Maryland projects last year. Another effort, Project Heartbeat, measures water quality by the diversity of insects found in water samples.
"There's so much of Maryland that hasn't been surveyed for water quality that these kinds of programs are really important," says Karen Blake, vice president of Save Our Streams. "We're in the process of expanding into Southern Maryland, and we'd be very interested in working together with the bay foundation on this kind of thing."
Officials at the state's environment and natural resources departments, which conduct extensive monitoring programs throughout Maryland, also are interested in Creekwatchers.
"With any citizen monitoring, you want to assure that the testing is accurate," says Richard Eskine, deputy director of the health and risk management program for the state Department of the Environment. "This idea has been around for a long time, but the implementation is getting better [through] better training for volunteers."
With the program in its early stages, foundation officials have made no commitments but have begun discussions with environmental groups in Anne Arundel County. The potential, says Coble, is nearly limitless.
"Once you get people involved in something right in their own back yards, it can be far more extensive than anything a government agency could do," says Coble. "It will take a few years of data to reach any conclusions here, but we think this could be the beginning of something that will get more and more people invested in their rivers and creeks and the entire bay."