Here in this part of the state we are truly the Saudi Arabia of playa lakes because there are over 23,000 in western Kansas—the most in the world.
We have mixed emotions about the playas. I don’t know how many times we’ve had to pull tractors or combines out of them. And I can’t count the number of crop failures we’ve had because of them.
But on most days we’re thankful for them. If all we had were flat Harney silt loam soils, we’d lead a pretty plain life. But with the playas, we enjoy a lot of scenic and aesthetic breaks along with a greatly diversified flora and fauna.
This past spring Louise and I and Jen got to see a trumpeter swan on one of the playas west of the house. Not only that but we’ve also seen pelicans, American avocets, snow and Canada geese, sand hill cranes, mallards, pin tails, teal, tad poles, fairy shrimp, huge shore birds with long bony legs eating fish! Where did those fish come from? Also bald eagles and golden eagles. And the best swimmers of all….snakes!
Out in the country you’ll see these low spots in fields…they’re all over. On our farm, for every 1000 acres, there’s roughly 40 acres of playa lakes. Farmers call them ponds, lagoons, buffalo wallows. They can range in size from several acres up to 100 acres or more. On our farm we have probably the largest playa lake in the county and it’s 136 acres.
The playa lakes are probably 130,000 years old and originated from subsurface salt deposits being dissolved. Here in our semi arid climate, these lakes are dry most of the time, but during wet periods, they’ll fill and hold water for several weeks or months. Our big playa lake will hold water up to a year.
We think these playas offer a lot of private benefits: aesthetic and recreational value. Social benefits: improved water quality as well as aquifer recharge. Potential benefits: recently French researchers were here on the farm looking for hydrogen gas coming up out of the playas as a new energy source.
We’ve had many others from all over the country coming here to look at the playas on our farm and elsewhere in western Kansas. Archeologists, geologists, biologists, engineers, geomorphologists, geochemists, hydrologists, soil scientists, petrophysicists. And a lot ofjust regular people who want to see these places.
They’re looking for artifacts, pulling soil samples, radio carbon dating, drilling to shale, putting in observation wells, collecting subsurface gases, counting and identifying all sorts of water fowl and every living plant on the farm. The University of Kansas just started a long term study here to document the contribution made in Ogallala recharge.
The playas have always been important—even to the earliest Lane County people who were here over 10,000 years ago. Once filled, these naturally occurring low spots held rain and snow melt which attracted prehistoric animals like mammoths, horses, camels, bison and all sorts of water fowl. They were followed by mammoth-hunting Clovis. Then later nomadic Hell Gap and Logan Creek Indians and more recently, Apaches then Comanches and finally Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapahoe.
The Ehmkes have been here 4 and 5 generations, but the archeologists tell us there were 400 to 500 generations here before us. Here we are today separated from these early people by hundreds and thousands of years. And all of us with wildly different cultures and languages and looks. And yet, we still come to the same places looking for the same things.
And we thought they were just lagoons!
New Playa Lake Conservation Program
Kansas FSA has a new practice under the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program specifically aimed at playa lakes.
This initiative is part of an established effort known as State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement or SAFE. The practice focuses on enrolling playas into CRP to improve habitat for migratory birds, butterflies and pollinators.
The purpose of the new practice is to restore the functions and values of a playa wetland hydrology ecosystem; to improve habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl; and to maximize habitat for pollinators and priority species of monarch butterflies.
See your local FSA for more information.