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A Day to Celebrate the Diversity of Life

A baby black skimmer (Rynchops niger) in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico. Photo credit: Pronatura Noroeste
A baby black skimmer (Rynchops niger) in the Colorado River Delta in Mexico. Photo credit: Pronatura Noroeste

Today is the International Day for Biological Diversity, a day to celebrate the amazing richness of life that shares this planet with us.

Though we rarely think about it, it’s the behind-the-scenes work of bugs and birds, fish and frogs, flowers and trees, and micro-organisms of every stripe that keep earth humming and the landscape around us so beautiful and alive.

But just about everywhere, and especially in the world of freshwater, life is in trouble.

In North America, four in ten freshwater fish species are at risk of extinction.

Scientists estimate that the rate of extinction of freshwater animal species in North America is five times that of terrestrial species – and 1,000 times background rates.

Globally, the rivers, lakes and wetlands that sustain freshwater diversity are under assault. In just 14 years, the global area of floodplains and swamps fell by 105 million hectares (260 million acres).

That’s not just bad for the diversity of life, it’s bad for our economies, too. When we lose ecosystems we lose all the services they provide.

In the case of floodplains and wetlands, those crucial services include absorbing floodwaters, storing water for times of drought, providing critical habitat for birds and wildlife, and purifying water to keep it clean and safe to drink.

Resource economist Robert Costanza and his colleagues estimate that the 105 million hectares lost between 1997 and 2011 resulted in a loss in economic value of $2.7 trillion per year – about 4% of global GDP.

A single mussel can filter and cleanse as much as a gallon of water per hour. Add up the work of a whole mussel community, and you get a virtual water treatment plant.

So today, let’s celebrate the remarkable critters around us, seen and unseen.

And consider joining Change the Course, the effort I co-lead to return critical flows to depleted ecosystems in the highly stressed, but biologically rich Colorado River Basin.

For every individual pledge to conserve, we promise to return 1,000 gallons to a depleted portion of this iconic river system. It’s easy; it’s free; and more than 125,000 people have already joined us.

Water is life. Let’s share it.

Help restore water to the Colorado River Basin by joining Change the Course, a project of National Geographic, BEF, and Participant Media.  To return 1,000 gallons to the watershed, sign up online or text “River” to 77177.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.