The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries have sounded some clear danger alarms recently, but the region's residents have been receiving muddied explanations about why from government officials.

When recent surveys showed that underwater grasses are disappearing at ominous rates in Tangier Sound (a critical nursery for blue crabs), officials blamed high freshwater flows. When fish died in rivers in several parts of the bay this summer -- including an estimated half-million menhaden in the lower Pocomoke River -- heat and drought took the rap.

But fresh water didn't kill the grasses, and heat and dry conditions alone didn't kill the fish. The real culprits were sediments from overdeveloped land and nutrients from car tailpipes, power plants, sewage treatment plants and heavily fertilized lawns and fields. People created these problems. Destruction of wetlands and woods has crippled the bay's ability to handle these pollutants and other stresses imposed by floods and droughts.

In a healthy watershed, the natural filters and sponges -- wetlands and woods -- absorb rain, filter runoff and store cleaner water to release gradually to streams. In even the hardest droughts, such as the one we are experiencing, fewer pollutants and more clean water would reach the rivers if we had more filters and sponges. But a bay whose health has been severely damaged by pollutants and a loss of filters can't handle stress.

The bay's filters and sponges, however, remain under assault. For example, more than 2,100 acres of forested wetlands in southeastern Virginia have been drained by developers since a federal appeals court reopened a loophole in the federal wetlands law. Nearly 6,000 more wetland acres in Virginia are in jeopardy because of this loophole, and another 500,000 acres possibly could be at risk.

This loophole was reopened when a federal court set aside an Army Corps of Engineers regulation called the Tulloch rule concerning the draining of wetlands. With the Tulloch rule thrown out, a developer who drains hundreds of acres through a ditching system doesn't need a permit, isn't regulated and doesn't have to mitigate his action.

Virginia is not alone in the risk it faces -- approximately 20,000 wetland acres were lost in North Carolina before the governor there closed the same loophole. Fortunately, the loophole is not an immediate problem in Maryland or Pennsylvania because their state regulations prohibit the drainage of wetlands.

If we don't stop polluting and begin building a strong legal base to protect our environmental restoration efforts, other natural climactic patterns also will have the potential to turn into catastrophes. Virginia officials can help prevent that from happening by immediately closing the Tulloch loophole.

-- Michael Shultz

is vice president for public affairs of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.