Tony Cincibus' weathered boat cut through a wide orange swath created by the sun setting on the Middle River. He slowed the boat as it reached a place where a vast, flourishing bed of Eurasian watermilfoil had disappeared, seemingly overnight.

"I remember when the grass here was so thick we had to drag a bedspring back and forth through it in the spring, just to be able to get a boat in," he said. "The water was crystal clear then; you could see right down to the bottom."

The loss of the grasses and the habitat they provided was disheartening to Cincibus, a welding supervisor, carpenter and wildlife artist who has chaired the fishing committee of a local club for two decades. In recent years, he has experimented with different ways to get grasses back in the river, but with little success.

"I can't believe the disregard so many people have for the Bay, it makes me sick," he said. "I'm not going to stop trying until the water is as clear as it was 20 years ago."

To improve his odds of success, Cincibus joined about a dozen other volunteers who monitor water quality in Middle River to see if it meets water quality requirements for Bay grasses.

The Bay Grass Monitoring Program was begun in 1994 by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay to learn what areas were - and were not - meeting the five specific water quality requirements needed by the plants. The program is an expansion of the Alliance's 12-year-old Chesapeake Bay Citizen Monitoring Program, which uses volunteers to gather general water quality information at about 200 sites throughout the watershed.

Baywide, the Alliance is using information collected by Cincibus and others in the grass monitoring program to identify potential restoration sites. By comparing their data to annual aerial surveys conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, it is possible to identify areas that have no grasses, but which meet the water quality requirements

At several locations, volunteers also use special traps to determine whether there are any "propagules" - seeds, tubers, uprooted or broken off plants or plant parts - present to stimulate natural revegetation. These 3-by-3-foot, wire mesh traps are secured to the bottom and routinely checked by monitors when they take their water samples.

If an area meets all the water quality requirements, but there is no natural source of propagules, it may be a potential restoration site.

So far, the Alliance has used data from volunteers to identify two sites in the St. Mary's River in southern Maryland as grass restoration sites, as part of a project supported by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Volunteers are also monitoring several other sites for Bay grass water quality, including the Big Annamessex River, Chessconnessex River, Magothy River, Nanjemoy Creek, and numerous locations at Aberdeen Proving Ground and Indian Head Naval Surface Warfare Station.

Besides identifying potential restoration sites, the volunteer monitoring program seeks to cultivate a sense of stewardship in participants that gets them involved in protecting and restoring watersheds on their own. Provided with the right technical information, people can act to mitigate existing problems and prevent others.

Sometimes, the exchange of information can work two ways.

Cincibus, for example, has been working for eight years to restore grasses on Middle River, but his efforts have been largely unsuccessful; in some cases his grasses have been ripped up by ducks, other times they have been run over by boats.

As a result, he has developed special exclosure devices for use around grasses he has worked to restore. The wire mesh cages, which are pressed about a foot into the river floor, keep ducks, fish and burrowing aquatic creatures from feeding on the beds until they are firmly established.

In addition, the cages are anchored with wooden posts that extend above the water surface to prevent boaters from inadvertently zooming through the fledgling grasses.

The design works so well that the Alliance plans to use it on grass transplanting projects in the St. Mary's River.

For information about the Alliance's water quality monitoring programs, contact Kathleen Millan, at (410) 377-6270.