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Water quality/quantity issues span from Merced to South Florida

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, FLA. — A trek into Florida’s 9 million acres of wetlands — home to a diverse ecosystem of tropical plants, great herons, frogs, alligators, panthers and crawfish — is usually paved with deep water and mud.

But the swampy surface of Everglades National Park has gone distressingly dry. Known for its slough slogs, visitors to the park prepare to drudge through knee-high deep slush. However, in May, they barely got mud on their sneakers.

The Everglades signify water problems spanning the US, problems Merced County knows well. Although it’s uncommon to draw similarities between tropical South Florida habitat and the San Joaquin Valley’s Mediterranean climate, both are dealing with two critical water issues — quality and quantity.

“Water is the oil of the 21st Century,” said John “Woody” Wodraska, national director of water resources for consulting firm PBS&J, and a nationally-known expert in his field. Wodraska has handled sensitive water supply issues in both Florida and California.

“Is water a commodity or a public resource?” he asked. “I believe it’s a public resource. But it’s undervalued.”

The Everglades are becoming starved for water. And water it does hold sits downstream from an area that hosts about a million visitors a year, said Nick Aumen, an aquatic ecologist for the park.

Urban development has diverted water from the park and changed the timing of its hydrology. Pollutants and fertilizers have flowed into its basins and streams.

Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades has its share of problems. It now contains high levels of phosphorus from over fertilizing, said Donald Fox, biologist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

And the numbers of fish within it have dropped. Last year the numbers hadn’t been so low since 1973. “We’re seeing no young fish coming in,” Fox said.

Over in California, the Merced River has similar issues.

Its water levels have dropped after two years of dry winters. Less water has drained from the Sierra snowpack into its water shed, sending less water to Merced-area farmers for irrigation.

Another concern — not just in the Merced River, but all along the West Coast’s streams and ocean — is the dramatic decline of the Chinook salmon.