Playas: Refilling the Ogallala Aquifer?

We recharge our phones and electronics every day, but did you know that there are ways to recharge the amount of water stored in the ground?

Recharging the Ogallala Aquifer is the goal for the Texas Playa Conservation Initiative (TxPCI), a partnership of six organizations including Texas Parks and Wildlife, Playa Lakes Joint Venture, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited and Texan by Nature (TxN).

TxN is a nonprofit whose mission is to bring business and conservation together to amplify Texan-led, science-based projects that benefit the people, prosperity and natural resources of the state.

“The goal of TxPCI is to restore playas and increase awareness among the public of the important role playas play in their daily lives,” said Jenny Burden, TxN’s program manager for TxCPI. “Many people may not be aware of where their water comes from or that water supplies are not infinite. By spreading that message, TxPCI hopes to create an ethos of water conservation among citizens that benefits not only the playas, but also water usage and aquifer health as a whole.

“Currently, usage rates on the Ogallala Aquifer outpace its ability to recharge,” Burden said. “This issue is amplified by damage done to playa lakes. In their natural state, playas act as natural filters that not only provide water sources for wildlife on the surface but also recharge the aquifer as the water filters through cracks in the playas’ clay lining back into the aquifer.”

But what is a playa?

Burden explained that playa wetlands are temporary, clay-lined depressions ranging from a few acres to a couple hundred acres in size. “Their accumulation is solely dependent on runoff from heavy rain, and while some are dry for months at a time, when it does rain, they fill up and create temporary wetlands,” she said.

When it rains, water filters through the cracks and enters the aquifer. As the clay lining gets wet, these cracks swell and seal, cutting off access to the aquifer and allowing the shallow playas to remain temporarily full. When the water evaporates and drains, the cracks in the clay re-open and the cycle will repeat with the next rainfall.

“Playas play a critical role in recharging the aquifer,” Burden said. Of the more than 80,000 playa wetlands found in North America, roughly 23,000 are found in northwest Texas. “These temporary wetlands, which can be very small all the way up to a couple hundred acres, are absolutely key to maintaining a sustainable water table.”

According to TxPCI’s website, wet playas attract thousands of ducks, geese and a variety of shorebirds during migrations, providing local hunting and birdwatching opportunities. Playas can also provide a living laboratory where students can learn about wetlands, geology and the history of the region.

In addition to these benefits, the water recharging through playas today will be available for use by the next generation.

Playas are very beneficial, providing up to 95 percent of an aquifer’s recharge, according to a TxN video about TxPCI. Burden said the water that recharges in Texas, stays in Texas as the flow rate in the aquifer is very slow. “Therefore, water saved by Texans is used by Texans.”

Burden said a playa has the potential of recharging over 80,000 gallons of water per acre per year.

“TxPCI has restored over 500 playa-acres of land in Texas so far, adding a potential 40 million gallons of water for recharge, depending on rainfall,” she said. “Considering the average person can use nearly 40,000 gallons of water per year on their own, these restored playas can help offset the impact of over 1,000 people. The more healthy playas available, the better the balance is between usage and recharge.

“Not only do cities use the aquifer for urban populations, but ranchers and farmers punch wells and pull from the water table to irrigate crops and water livestock,” Burden said. “That usage currently out-paces the ability of water to get back in the playa, making the water table more and more shallow. If water could recharge, that supply would be able to regenerate. 

“As populations increase in the area, so will demand for water,” she said. “Healthy playas ensure that water will be there to meet those needs.”

To help increase recharge rates to the aquifer and ensure a sustainable water source for the Panhandle, TxPCI works directly with landowners to restore playas to their natural condition. According to the video, many factors contributed to the decline in playa water levels and quality including over-grazing, older irrigation methods, silt deposit and erosion. These issues create pits and trenches within the playas, making them dysfunctional.

Burden said that playa restoration is available for any landowner or producer who believes they have a playa on their property. After contacting TxPCI, a biologist will assist the landowner with mapping and analysis of the playa to determine if it needs restoring. If restoration is necessary, TxPCI arranges for contractors to fill the pits and trenches in the playas, pays them and pays the landowner a per-acre incentive payment for their participation.

“Pushing dirt back in a pit is a simple, cost-effective solution that restores playa hydrology, allowing the playa to begin working again,” she said. “There is no work necessary on the landowners’ part, making it a very landowner-friendly program.”

TxN’s goal is to gain 20 percent of playa landowner participation in the next five years resulting in an estimated 969 million gallons of clean water annually restored to the aquifer.

“TxN got involved with TxPCI through their selection as a Conservation Wrangler project,” said Burden. “Conservation Wrangler projects amplify and accelerate existing conservation work in Texas.”

Each year, TxN chooses Conservation Wrangler projects based on metric-driven applications that showcases both the current and potential impact of an effort by a business or conservation group. Once chosen as a Conservation Wrangler project, TxN assisted TxPCI with community outreach through web content creation, social media and personal advocacy at public events.

Burden said that TxN’s unique position as a trusted organization among businesses in Texas allows it to open doors to projects and help them think bigger and more creatively about reaching its goals.

To learn more about the Ogallala Aquifer’s decline, read Texas Water Resources Institute’s Ogallala Aquifer-themed issue of txH2O magazine.

*Banner photo: Texas playas are recharge points for the Ogallala Aquifer and provide important wildlife habitat. Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Authors

As communications specialist for TWRI, Sarah Richardson works with the institute's communications team leading graphic design projects including Conservation Matters, flyers, brochures, reports, documents and other educational materials. 

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