What Are Playas?

Playas are the most numerous wetlands in the western Great Plains. Their ephemeral nature, often wet only for short periods of time, belies their hydrological and ecological significance.

Playas are the main source of recharge to the Ogallala aquifer. Cracks that form when a playa’s clay-lined basin dries out serve as recharge conduits when summer thunderstorms drop large amounts of rainfall over playa watersheds. As the soils become saturated and swell, the playas fill with water. Once a playa has filled it may remain wet for several months, eventually drying out to start the process all over again.

The organisms that inhabit playas are well adapted to this cycle of wet and dry. Plants, insects, crustaceans, and amphibians may lay dormant in an undisturbed playa basin for years only to re-emerge quickly when a playa fills with water. This bloom of life draws birds, often in the thousands, to playas which serve as critical migration habitat for shorebirds, waterfowl, and other waterbirds. Because of this cycle of wet and dry, playas are one of the most biodiverse habitats in the western Great Plains.

Below are a few photos of playas in various locations and conditions

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Wet Playa Attracts Waterfowl, New Mexico

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Wet Playa Surrounded by Smartweed that Provides Forage for Waterfowl, Nebraska

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Dry Playa in Grazing Land, Kansas

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Dry Playa in Farmland, Nebraska

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Playa Bisected by a Road, Texas

Playas are impacted by a variety of modifications and land-use changes that affect their ecological functioning. In general, these modifications interrupt the natural playa hydrology, reduce their ability to provide food and habitat to birds and other animals, and may prevent recharge to the aquifer. By understanding the distribution of these modifications, resource managers can better protect playas with limited changes and help restore those with more. The following pages describe some of the common modifications that we need you to identify from satellite imagery: farmed playas, pitted playas and playas with ditches or drains.

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