Playa Health: The Importance of Buffers


Research indicates that a buffer surrounding a playa lake, consisting typically of native grasses and forbs, prevents migration of upland topsoil and farm chemicals into lowland wetlands such as playa lakes and rainwater basins. The buffers are important to rangeland playas, but are vital when playas are situated in fields under crop production.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

We’ve been considering restoring and maintaining playa lakes and rainwater basins so they remain healthy, functional ecosystems. Research shows these ephemeral lakes recharge groundwater, like the Ogallala Aquifer. They’re wonderful water filtration systems — keeping fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides out of the groundwater. Then, there’s that other reason — taking care of nature.

A while back we talked to Tom Flowers, who recently retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, where he was a district conservationist at Meade, Kansas. I was struck by his enthusiasm. He says it’s as if these ephemeral lakes almost are magical.

“They can be dry for 15 or 20 years, have a rainfall event, and immediately within days perennial plants show up. They’ve lay dormant beneath the ground for all these years and as soon as that soil becomes moist, they shoot up and produce bulrush, cattails, mud plantain, spikerush, a host of plants.”

That explosion of plant life is just part of it. Flowers is fascinated by the small creatures that wake up.

“They fall down in the cracks when it’s dry, and they just lay there as eggs. As soon as it gets wet, within just a few days, the eggs hatch, they grow, and they become small invertebrates such as fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp, clam shrimp, snails.”

And that bursting-forth of plant and animal life is irresistible to local and migrating birds. But, farming and soil erosion harm playas, according to biologist Bill Johnson with U.S. Fish and Wildlife at Canyon, Texas.

“In all directions around a playa the land goes upward. If there isn’t cover on that all the time, in the form of a grass or prairie cover, when you get heavy rains, you get erosion washing the upland plow-tilled soils downhill into the playa.”

Conservationists understand we can keep sediment from silting-up playas using a margin of plant life around the edge of the wetland, by creating a plant buffer. Besides filtering silt and chemicals, the indigenous plants create wonderful wildlife habitat, according to farm bill biologist Jerry Miller with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. At Sterling, Colorado, Miller advises producers and landowners on cost-share programs that conserve playas.

“The waterfowl that use the area, they’re going to bring in smartweed and the millet type plants that are likely to be found around the edge of the playa area. We’re going to just let that happen naturally. The upland site… we’re in Pheasant country, and I try to put in some of the taller, warm season grasses and some flowering forbs into that mix so we’re developing some really good brood habitat for the pheasant population and other ground nesting birds in the area.”

Ted LaGrange, the wetland program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, advises land managers on buffer creation in Nebraska.

“Our recommendation on a buffer would be to use native species, a tall- and mixed-grass prairie species, and to allow some management of those — management things like prescribed burning, grazing — that replicate what historically occurred in those upland areas and that will provide habitat for grassland wildlife using that buffer, but also protect the wetland from sediment and allow water to reach the wetland.”

Playa Country is a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. This program is made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures, and Enel Green Power.

Original broadcast: November 2012

Posted: April 19, 2015
Topics: Playas