Also referred to as buffalo wallows or mud holes, playa lakes have been an important part of the western Great Plains environment since long before the land became endless polygons and circles of wheat, corn, sorghum, and other crops. Simply defined as small, temporary wetlands at the lowest point of their own watershed, playa lakes are a very important ecosystem. While it is estimated that there are over 80,000 playas across six states, almost all of them are located on private land with more than 80% having been modified by some form of land conversion. Playa lakes are capable of supporting a diverse range of wildlife when full, while also filtering and cleaning the water as it drains into the aquifer.
The basins of the lakes are lined with clay soil that holds the water which will become a primary source of recharge to the Ogallala Aquifer. The lakes rely on a natural wet-dry cycle that is crucial for wetland plants and invertebrates to complete their life-cycle and continue to thrive on the Great Plains. For many playas, the biggest threat is sediment accumulation which can be prevented by planting buffers. The best mix for these buffers are short native grass mixes consisting of species such as buffalograss, blue grama, and sideoats grama. It is also extremely important to fill any pits or trenches that are draining the playa and keeping it from performing its natural functions.
Money for playa lake restoration and conservation can be acquired through various resources. The Migratory Bird, Butterfly, and Pollinator Habitat SAFE (CP38B) is one option that provides landowners a financial incentive to restore playa lakes through 10-15 year contracts. Landowners can also enroll into a Wetland Reserve Easement (CP23 and CP23A) through the NRCS which has the options of a 30 year or perpetual easement. To go along with these two main options, there are also EQIP practices for playa restoration through the NRCS and cost share opportunities and technical assistance available from Ducks Unlimited.
The importance of playa lakes in the western Great Plains environment has become abundantly clear over the last 25 years. A healthy playa lake with native grass buffer can offer many benefits, including groundwater filtering, recharge, and is a lifeline for biodiversity. For more information on playa lakes, please visit the USDA NRCS, the Playa Lakes Joint Venture, and Ducks Unlimited.