Texas Playa Conservation Initiative

C onservation partners are focusing on playa restoration in the Texas Panhandle.

Playas are the most important ecological feature in the southern Great Plains. These ephemeral, or temporary, wetlands are typically circular in shape and range from 10 to more than 100 acres in size. Playas are numerous across the region. Approximately 80,000 have been mapped, the majority of which occur in the Texas Panhandle. 

Playas are shallow, ephemeral wetlands that, when flooded by rainfall, can provide vital habitat for an array of migrating and wintering waterfowl in the Texas High Plains.

In the past, some playas were altered by digging holes or ditches to collect and concentrate water for irrigating crops and watering livestock. Many of these pits and ditches have been abandoned and can be easily restored. The spoil pile from the original excavation is often still present and can be used to refill the pit.

Once a pit is filled, rainwater and runoff can again reach the entire playa basin, which is essential for aquifer recharge to occur. The shallow water that spreads across the playa also allows plants and insects to flourish, which in turn provides important food and habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife.

Lubbock County Playa restoration, under construction.

Partners including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV), and Ducks Unlimited have established the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative to restore playa basins impacted by the construction of pits or drainage ditches. 

TPWD lead Don Kahl explained, “Currently, we are concentrating our efforts on filling in pits in playas on private lands to restore the natural function of the playa. By doing so, we create shallow water habitat for waterfowl when the playa floods. Also, an intact clay layer on a repaired playa allows for proper filtration of water as it makes its way to the aquifer through the playa floor. The clay particles help to pull out nitrates and other potential contaminants.”

The program covers all costs for restoration and pays the landowner a one-time, $80-per-playa-acre incentive payment upon completion of the playa restoration.

“Our goal is to provide wetland habitat for wildlife and improve the quality and quantity of groundwater recharge through playas for the ranchers, farmers, and local residents who live here,” Kahl said.

Partners include TPWD, PLJV, Ducks Unlimited, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, USFWS, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, Texas Grazing Lands Coalition, Texas Tech University, The Nature Conservancy, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, and Ogallala Commons.

“We make playa restoration easy for the landowner,” Kahl said. “We’ll take care of all the arrangements and do all of the work. There is no cost to the landowner and no labor required. We aren’t trying to modify or control the future management of the property, only fill in a hole that no longer serves a purpose,” Kahl said.

As the Playa Conservation Initiative grows, the partners plan to do more than pit filling for playa restoration. Other restoration practices may include the planting of grass buffers around farmed playas and sediment removal from basins.

As of last October, the partners had negotiated 11 contracts with landowners, which will result in approximately 400 acres of restored playas. Funding for the pit filling activities comes from the USFWS, TPWD, and Ducks Unlimited.

Ducks Unlimited secured a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation ConocoPhillips SPIRIT of Conservation and Innovation grant to support the playa restoration effort. TPWD is delivering the program, and the Playa Lakes Joint Venture is providing administrative support. 

Interested landowners can contact Don Kahl at (806) 475-1308 or don.kahl@tpwd.texas.gov.

—by Andi Cooper

—from Andi Cooper

Return to CONTENTS Page

Roy Neves: