Texas — the “home” of playas

With about 23,000 playas in the Southern High Plains of Texas, the state is undoubtedly an important place for playa restoration and conservation. But, despite their abundance and ability to support aquifer recharge, they often go unnoticed or underappreciated.

As a solution to this, a number of conservation organizations came together in 2015 to form the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative. The initiative, now in its fifth year, helps producers restore playas on their land by filling in pits and trenches and informs landowners and community members about the importance of these wetlands. So far, 30 projects encompassing 1,628 acres of playas and an equal amount of surrounding grass have been conserved.

“Of course habitat conservation is important and the reason why we do this, but I also think the community of partners — working together and getting people familiar with this type of approach in this landscape — is also important,” said Jeff Raasch, joint venture program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD). “It’s all of us learning together how to do it.”

While this effort is designed to be a broad partnership and is continuing to expand and bring in more partners, the initiative is guided by a steering committee comprised of representatives from Ducks Unlimited, Ogallala Commons, Playa Lakes Joint Venture, Texan by Nature, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, US Fish and Wildlife Service and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Although playa restoration is completed at no cost to the landowner and a one-time incentive payment is provided, it was at first challenging to get people interested and engaged.

“In the beginning, it was a difficult sell because for years landowners had been looking at playas as a hindrance to their operations, whether they were grazing or farming. It was challenging to overcome the negative perceptions about playas and to help producers understand that playa restoration could be a win-win for conservation and their operation,” said Calvin Richardson, Region 1 Director of the Wildlife Division for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and a member of the initiative’s steering committee.

Don Kahl, who recently left his position at TPWD, managed the day-to-day program operations, as well as the outreach efforts, since the initiative began. Over the years, Kahl said he has seen a noticeable increase in the number of community members and landowners interested in the initiative, as well as playa restoration and water conservation in general.

“What really attracts people to the initiative now is the realization of the importance of playas to recharging the Ogallala Aquifer,” Kahl said. “They’re coming to the realization that water is not a never-ending source and are realizing the importance of playas, not just for water but for wildlife and the ecosystem of the High Plains.”

More landowners are not only participating in the program but are also talking about it with their neighbors and attending educational workshops about the benefits of playas.

“One of the great things we’re seeing now is they’re coming to the realization that there’s more they can do to ensure that they are putting clean water back into the aquifer for future use,” Kahl said.

Although there have been successes, there is still work to be done.

“I think some of the success is that we’ve been able to stick with it and we have a partnership of folks that are still wanting to sit around the table and talk about this,” Raasch said, emphasizing that continued engagement with partners is key. “I would love to see us expand into using Farm Bill programs in some of these playa-related projects and to see a diverse partnership in delivery and in funding.”

Some of this work not only includes introducing more landowners to playa conservation and engaging them in the program, but potentially expanding the scope of the project to include additional conservation practices and reaching new areas of the state.

“There are lots of opportunities further north of the Canadian river that we haven’t tied into yet so it would be a great opportunity to spread the message to folks there,” Kahl said. “I’d also like to see additional conservation work that ties into other issues playas are facing, like establishing grass buffers around playas and removing sediment.”

Overall, Richardson said, the goal for the initiative, now and in the future, can be tied to ensuring future use of these lands.

“It’s about sustainability of wildlife, the land practices, and the communities,” he said. “If we don’t implement programs like this and if people don’t buy into them, some of the communities are not going to be present in the future.”

What’s next:
Don Kahl played an instrumental role in the development and delivery of the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative over the past five years. With his recent departure from TPWD, the landowner outreach and program delivery will be spread among more people.
“On behalf of the partnership, I want to thank Don for his tireless work to build this program, which will benefit thousands of acres of playas throughout the Texas panhandle,” said PLJV Coordinator Mike Carter.
For more on the program, areas covered and contact information, visit PlayasWorkForTexans.com.
Posted: August 17, 2020