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What’s polluting Tampa Bay’s water? Study maps its ‘nutrient fingerprint’

A two-year study is identifying bay polluters in an important first step on the road to policy change

Equipped with high hopes and an arsenal of cutting-edge technology, scientists have embarked on a new quest to scope out the sources of Tampa Bay’s pollution.

Is the water at your favorite bayside park dirty from a leaky sewage pipe? An upstream farm? Your neighbor’s over-fertilized lawn?

That’s the central question driving a new, two-year study that will document the health of Tampa Bay’s water monthly.

The research, called the Nutrient Fingerprint Project, aims to pinpoint polluters, inspire more action from Florida lawmakers and combat harmful algal blooms and ecological decline that plague the bay, organizers said.

“A lot of the technology that we’ve had up to now gives us a broad picture of what the water quality problem’s sources are. But it doesn’t give us the tools that we need to really draft legal interventions that will help us address the problems,” said Jon Paul “J.P.” Brooker, director of Florida Conservation for the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, a partner in the study.

In other words, it has been historically hard to pin down specific polluters that release excess nitrogen, a fuel for harmful algae species, into the bay.