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World Wetlands Day: Happy Underrated Water Body Day!

In addition to being Groundhog Day, Feb. 2 is World Wetlands Day. Say what? An international day to celebrate swamps? If you’re scratching your head wondering why in the world we’d throw a party for swamps (and bogs and marshes and fens and floodplains and other wet, buggy places), here’s why:

Wetlands protect us. They’re our best buffer from floods and storms, better than any levees we could ever build -- after all, an acre of wetland can store 1–1.5 million gallons of floodwater. They are also our best pollution filter, absorbing the nasty stuff we can't drink and easing the workload for our man-made drinking water sanitation systems. And they keep our ecosystems alive, providing healthy habitats and resting places to the birds, critters and plants we need in order to continue to thrive in our own environment, wherever that may be.

Great thinkers all the whole world over recognized this more than 40 years ago when they came together in the Iranian city of Ramsar and signed a global treaty called the Ramsar Convention to protect the planet’s invaluable wetlands.

Today, wetlands are even more important as we face increased flooding, extreme storms and sea level rise due to climate change. And when it comes to preventing floods and protecting communities, there is no better cost-saver than wetlands. Flood damage along the Charles River in Massachusetts, for example, costs taxpayers $17 million each year. A recent study found that restoring wetlands along the Upper Mississippi watershed could save $16 billion in flood costs – and could store the volume of water that caused the Great Flood of 1993.

One thing you can’t put a price on is rare and precious wildlife, and wetlands are nature’s favorite R&R spot. Migratory birds stop by for restful breaks on their long journeys, and some of our rarest species make their home in these lush, abundant habitats. Nearly half of all North American bird species rely on wetlands for feeding and nesting, and a third of our plant species grow here – an astonishing fact because wetlands constitute only 5 percent of the continental U.S. land surface. Birders, hunters, anglers and wildlife lovers flock to wetlands each year: tourism and recreation in our wetlands contributes tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy each year.

Sometimes seeing is believing. Check out these two photographic tributes to our nation's wet-ish places: a public Flickr photo contest to commemorate World Wetlands Day, hosted by the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with loads of photos that capture Americans' favorite wetland spots, and this beautiful Mother Nature Network photographic tribute to the magnificent creatures of the wetlands of the world.

On World Wetlands Day, it's all the more necessary to recognize that our wetlands are in grave danger. Industrial pollution, mining, dumping, construction are filling them; factory farming projects are draining them; invasive species are smothering them; and chemical, hazardous and stormwater runoff are overwhelming their natural systems and killing them. These valuable flood buffers, pollution filters, and wildlife habitats are on rapid decline; our country loses about 60,000 acres of wetlands every year thanks to industrial pollution and development.

The greatest current threat of all to our wetlands lies in some Bush-era pro-polluter policies that wiped away longstanding Clean Water Act protections from 20 million acres of U.S. wetlands (along with 60 percent of our streams, and the drinking water supplies of 117 million Americans).

All is not lost, though. The Obama administration can fix this by restoring these critical Clean Water Act protections to America’s wetlands and waterways through a guidance and rulemaking. Please take action now and tell President Obama to act quickly for clean water and restore these protections.