What’s the Big Deal About Pits?

You may have seen the photos, or heard people talk, of deep holes dug in the basin of a playa or long ditches that siphon the water into the pit or another nearby drainage area. But what’s the big deal? Why should we care? The issue is that these modifications interrupt playas’ natural hydrology, reduce their ability to provide food and habitat to birds and other animals, and reduce recharge to the aquifer. The good news is that these pits and ditches, once viewed as necessary for agricultural production, can be removed with help from Farm Bill and other conservation programs.

In the past, pits were often dug to help irrigate surrounding land. Gravity irrigation systems were an important practice for irrigating crops. Water was pumped to the uphill side of a field, allowed to run downhill, then collected in reuse pits and cycled back to the top of the field. Pits were also created to collect water for livestock. In many cases, ditches and drains are also found in playas as a means of draining or reducing the amount of area covered by surface water. Like pits, drains interfere with the natural hydrology of playas and allow additional sediments to accumulate in playas.

Fortunately, more efficient irrigation technology, like center pivots and underground drip, have eliminated the need for gravity irrigation in many parts of the High Plains. For ranchers, installing wells and tanks has provided a more consistent source of water for cattle. Thus, many pits no longer serve their original purpose and could be restored. Landowners who are interested in restoring pitted playas can find cost-share opportunities and help creating off-site water sources through the Natural Resources Conservation Service or Farm Service Agency conservation programs.

Read more about the benefits of playas or learn how to conserve playas through the USDA Continuous Conservation Reserve Program practices CP23A and CP27/28.

Posted: November 10, 2014