Our Water Matters

Playa lakes in the Texas High Plains

If you’ve ever spent time in the Texas Panhandle, you may have noticed pools of water dotting the dry landscape. These ephemeral, shallow wetlands are called “playas” or “playa lakes.” According to Rachel Fern, statewide wetland program leader for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD), these playas “were formed about 8,000 years ago near the end of the last glacial period as the glaciers were retreating.” With roughly 23,000 playas, the High Plains region of Texas is home to the highest density of playas in North America. Although they only cover about 2% of the landscape on the Texas High Plains, they play an outsized role in the ecology of the region.

Healthy playas comprise an intact clay pan or basin at the lowest point in the landscape. According to Playa Lakes Joint Venture, “Water from the surrounding watershed freely enters the basin through a native vegetative buffer without being diverted from the playa by roads, terraces or other impediments.” These playas provide important, year-round habitat for wildlife as well as critical “refueling points” for shorebirds on their way to wintering areas along the Gulf Coast or further south.

But perhaps the most important function of a healthy playa is aquifer recharge. According to Fern, “The clay pan … of the playa will dry up and shrink during dry spells, creating huge cracks and fissures across the basin. When the rains return and the soil re-wets, the water seeps through the cracks, making its way through several feet of clay” and other soil before it reaches the underlying aquifer. Eventually, Fern says, “The clay will swell shut with the moisture and water will pool on the surface providing crucial water for wildlife.” After the water evaporates, the clay pan dries out and the whole cycle starts over again.

Playas provide as much as 95% of the water collected in the southern portion of the enormous Ogallala Aquifer, which underlies seven states. According to Fern, “The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the largest fresh-water aquifers in the world, providing 30% of the United States’ irrigation and 20% of the country’s agricultural output. The Ogallala is also the primary source of municipal water for residents in the Panhandle.” But the Ogallala is widely understood to be disappearing due to over pumping. This makes the efforts of the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative (TXPCI) all the more critical because “without functioning playas, we risk not only losing our communities, but also our wildlife that are dependent on these wetlands.”

According to Fern, “Playas are frequently at risk of draining and development (like tilling through the clay basin and digging pits or ditches to drain water off the landscape) and fragmentation (through road construction, for example).” As a result, her work necessarily focuses on landowner outreach and stewardship. For Fern, “The most inspiring aspect of this work has been the perspectives of the landowners. Every story is a little bit different. But for the most part, the intent is the same: everyone wants to do right by the land and their communities … It’s awesome to watch the culture of resource stewardship grow.” One of the biggest challenges, she says, is “scaling our efforts. The program has picked up substantial momentum … but the majority of our growth has been a result from word of mouth – neighbor to neighbor.”

Regardless of the challenges, the potential benefits of playa restoration are staggering. According to Fern, “It’s hard to say … [but] based on our understanding of playa function today, restoring all playa wetlands in the Texas Panhandle to their natural function would produce a total of 32 billion gallons of water recharge annually.” To put that into perspective, says Fern, “That’s enough water to supply all 425,927 residents in the Panhandle with water (based on current usage) for 2 years.”

The work of the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative (TXPCI) aims to provide tools to support, restore, and conserve these playas in collaboration with the Playa Lakes Joint Venture and Ducks Unlimited, along with other partners like Ogallala Commons, the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, Texan by Nature, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. To learn more, visit playasworkfortexans.com.

Trey Gerfers is a San Antonio native and serves as general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. He also works as a translator of technical documents from German to English for the German and Swiss pharmaceutical and medical-science industries. Trey has lived in Marfa since 2013. He can be reached at [email protected]