Enhancing Your Community’s Water Photo by Chas Isenhart

Enhancing Your Community’s Water

The Tomorrow’s Water model helps communities explore ways to provide future water by reducing the impacts from aquifer overuse and increasing groundwater recharge through playas. It is an adaptive, collaborative process for creating an actionable plan to stabilize community water supplies — with a focus on incorporating playa conservation as part of broader water quantity and quality efforts. Learn more >>

Playas Support Water Sustainability for Community Photo by Chas Isenhart

Playas Support Water Sustainability for Community

The city of Clovis and surrounding community depend on the Ogallala aquifer; however, it is rapidly being depleted. The city’s water assurance plan includes water conservation measures, the development of a pipeline from Ute Reservoir, and the restoration of playas. Healthy playas are a primary source of aquifer recharge, and also improve the quality of that water.

“The Ogallala Aquifer decline is something that is going to need to be addressed at a lot of city councils,” says Clovis Mayor Mike Morris. “My advice to other cities and other mayors would be have a plan, work that plan; but keep an open mind and be ready to implement new ideas that come along such as leveraging playa lakes as a way to recharge the aquifer.”

There are programs available to help landowners address groundwater depletion by restoring playas, implementing water saving technologies, and transitioning from irrigated farming. Learn more about playa conservation programs>>

Discover Magazine Features the Importance of Playas Photo by Miruh Hamend

Discover Magazine Features the Importance of Playas

Over the past few years, there has been a growing awareness of playas and their role in recharging the Ogallala Aquifer, including published articles. The May 2021 issue of Discover Magazine included an article, These Wetlands Feed The Largest Aquifer In The U.S. What Happens If We Lose Them?, which highlights the importance of playas to groundwater recharge.

“Not only do playas contribute to recharge, they dominate recharge. During the early minutes of a rain inundation, water flows through cracks in the clay soil and into the zone just beneath the playa floor. These cracks, which form when the playa runs dry, can slice as deep as 3 feet. They facilitate water flow into the clay subsurface at rates up to 116 inches per hour.” Read the full article.

How Playas Work

How Playas Work

Healthy playas are a primary source of groundwater recharge — and provide important, year-round habitat for birds and other wildlife. Unlike many other wetlands, playas have an irregular wet-dry cycle, which is key to how they function. This video shows how playas recharge the Ogallala aquifer and provide critical wildlife habitat as they go through the cycle.

Clovis Looks to Playas to Help Supply Municipal Water Photo by Brian Slobe

Clovis Looks to Playas to Help Supply Municipal Water


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The city of Clovis, New Mexico, is taking an innovative approach to ensuring its future water supply — playa conservation. And what this city of 38,000 is doing might become a model for other municipalities on the High Plains. The city government put a million dollars of economic development funds toward playa conservation. Most immediately they’re doing a stormwater runoff project to fill playa lakes. Longer range, Clovis city officials are talking with adjacent landowners and ag producers about rehabbing those playas, and obtaining water rights.

“The farmer is converting to dryland farming, enhancing their playa lake recharge and getting a long-term agreement to save that water for municipal and industrial use.”

Clovis mayor David Lansford, who told me cattle feedlots came in decades ago. But more recently the region’s seen huge dairy farms established. It’s lucrative for local producers to grow forage for those milk cows.

“We can only wait so long to start implementing conservation methods outside the city where the water is being mined aggressively. Eighty-five or ninety percent of the water in Curry County is used to put on crops, and the rate that is going is unsustainable by a long shot.”

Lansford says in the county, there are 10 to 15 ag producers who understand their water supply will be critical for Clovis and the adjacent Cannon Air Force Base.

“They don’t want to be the ones that ran the well dry. They are community minded people. They understand and care about the survival and sustainability of Curry County’s economy.”

The challenge is finding a way to compensate those producers for going dryland.

“They’re going to participate as long as it makes business sense. They aren’t going to go along with $100, let’s say, when they can make $500. That doesn’t make any sense.”

One Clovis neighbor is rancher Vincent de Maio.

“The idea that we retire some water closer to the city is certainly the first step they want to take. I see it as a much bigger project, and I see it much more extensive. I see the Clovis area as really being the model going forward, because what’s happening here is happening in west Texas, is happening in Kansas and Nebraska, all the way across the Ogallala.”

Mayor Landsford understands playas recharge the aquifer the city pulls its water from, and Clovis has playas in town. One project Clovis is pursuing diverts storm runoff into those lakes “as opposed to running them down the bar ditches and onto the highway.”

Then find methods, engineering, land- and vegetation-management methods that return playas to their natural functioning form.

“And then divert that water into those playa lakes and create not only a recharge funnel for the aquifer, but create a habitat for wildlife and various living species.”

Ken Rainwater’s a water-resources engineer at Texas Tech. He’s involved with the consulting firm doing the Clovis drainage master plan.

“As the stormwater runs through the city of Clovis, the flow paths are controlled by where the playa lakes are. Part of my job is to work with the information they’ve gathered to try to get an idea about how the playas behave during and between storms.”

Mike Carter is Playa Lakes Joint Venture coordinator. This project to capture storm runoff and send it into playas, Mike says that’s new and innovative thinking.

“If you triple the amount of water going into a playa by diverting runoff that’s doing damage to roads anyway and then you do it with sediment buffers so that you don’t do damage to the playa, you could be looking at a situation where you’re tripling the amount of recharge. That’s exactly the kind of solution that we’re looking for. That’s brilliant thinking.”

Playa Country, which ended in late 2016, was a weekly show that featured conservation and wildlife experts — as well as farmers, ranchers and land managers — talking about conservation practices that improve wildlife habitat and landowners’ bottom-line. This episode of Playa Country was made possible by a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society, with support provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Playas Provide Direct Recharge Benefits to Landowners Photo by Brian Slobe

Playas Provide Direct Recharge Benefits to Landowners

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When I was a kid in the ’60s, helping my dad on his farm south of Dodge City, he’d talk about the aquifer our old windmills were pumping water from out in the pasture. He always described the Ogallala as an underground river. That understanding of the aquifer implied that groundwater was free to flow, just like a surface river.

In the 50 years since then, scientists have learned lots about underground structures that are permeable to water flow. In some aquifers water is able to freely migrate from one area to another, but not so much when we talk about the Ogallala.

Ken Rainwater is a water resources engineer at Texas Tech. Ken studies groundwater.

“Regionally, here in the Southern High Plains of Texas, we talk about the velocity that the groundwater might move through the aquifer on its own on the order of a few feet per day, maybe a few hundred feet per year, depending on where you are.”

So the groundwater of the Ogallala aquifer really doesn’t flow laterally with much speed.

Randy Stotler’s a hydrogeologist at University of Kansas. He studies western Kansas playas.

“Some of the work that I’ve been doing with the Kansas Geological Survey, we’ve come to realize that there are quite a few parts of the High Plains Aquifer that are actually more compartments, or kind of individual bathtubs, rather than one big river.”

Stotler describes the makeup of the aquifer as not so much a river, but more a series of adjacent ‘bathtubs’ which tend to compartmentalize the effects irrigation wells have on their neighbors. Stotler says the compartmentalization of water becomes more significant as water levels decline.

“Where as one single irrigation well may have connected into a whole bunch of different bathtubs that might be of different sizes, they might reach over to a neighbor’s property. In fact, what we are starting to see is these compartments are becoming more individualized.”

One of Randy’s sites in southwest Kansas demonstrates this process.

“There’s one guy that can turn on his irrigation well — and we have an abandoned well about 60 feet away or so — and we see absolutely no response in that well. But, he might turn on a well and somebody two miles away, we can see the response in that well in the water levels.”

Stotler has learned the lower the water table dips, the more localized are the effects of pumping groundwater.

Playa lakes provide areas of focused recharge to the aquifer, with rates in playa basins 10 to 100 times higher than other areas. That highlights the importance of having high-functioning playa lakes — playas that haven’t been pitted, playas that aren’t silted-in, and playas with a perimeter plant buffer.

Healthy playas provide benefits beyond the amount of aquifer recharge. Water reaching the aquifer through playas is cleaner than water that enters through upland soils and other channels. The result is high quality water reaching the aquifer that can be used by you, your children and future generations.

There’s also the satisfaction of providing local and migrating birds and other critters habitat that helps them thrive.

When we started irrigating the High Plains in the 1950s, the Ogallala was understood to be that vast, virtually endless supply of water. When the water table dropped, we thought the groundwater could flow unimpeded from one area to another. That led to a mentality of ‘If I don’t pump it, the fellow down the road will.’

This new information about the Ogallala is likely to change people’s mentality when they understand that the way you treat your piece of the aquifer, under your property, will affect the amount and quality of your groundwater for future generations.

Playa Country, which ended in late 2016, was a weekly show that featured conservation and wildlife experts — as well as farmers, ranchers and land managers — talking about conservation practices that improve wildlife habitat and landowners’ bottom-line. This episode of Playa Country was made possible by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, and a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society, with support provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Playas Provide Clean Water for Future Generations Photo by Brian Slobe

Playas Provide Clean Water for Future Generations

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Researchers are constantly providing new information that the playa lakes of the high plains region are more beneficial to the future of our groundwater supply than was previously understood. When we can take steps to increase the amount of recharge to the aquifer, it benefits dryland farmers and ranchers, but also towns and cities that rely on well water.

Randy Stotler’s a hydrogeologist at University of Kansas. He studies the playas of western Kansas.

“Some research that I’ve done, and others in the last 10 years or so, has shown that playas can actually provide faster recharge rates to the aquifer than even under an irrigated center pivot. So, they can be quite significant in terms of the recharge they are providing to the aquifer.”

Researchers say firm data on the actual amount of aquifer recharge playas can provide is extremely variable, as might be expected. It depends on the size of a playa when it’s wet, how often the playa’s holding water, soil type, and depth to the water table.

“We’re actively trying to understand their role and the amount of recharge that we can get into the aquifers, and how much water is actually there and available for use.”

Not only do playa lakes provide the aquifer recharge, researchers are coming around to the idea playas are capable of recharging the groundwater enough to provide a sustainable amount of water for dryland farming and ranching.

“I certainly agree with that conclusion. The amount of water that is being pulled out of the aquifer for irrigation is much greater than we can expect to see recharged through any individual playa or group of playas, but it can certainly sustain a less water intensive operation such as dryland farming or ranching.”

That’s important new information, as communities struggle to deal with declining aquifers and cyclical droughts.

I ran some numbers with Andy Weinberg, a geoscientist with the Texas Water Development Board. He studies the playas of west Texas. He says some of them can collect a foot and a half of water per year, per acre.

“If you have a playa that is 50 to 100 acres, you’re talking 150 acre-feet a year that may be collected in it.”

So, says Weinberg, on average maybe a quarter of that water infiltrates the soil. Maybe that adds up to a dozen acre-feet of water a year.

“For an irrigator, that’s pretty trivial. But if you’re trying to do a household water supply, water your herd of cattle or something like that, that’s plenty of water to make that a sustainable operation.”

Think about the implication, for a dryland producer who’s adopting sustainable practices, and for ranchers.

Healthy playa lakes can provide sufficient recharge to give the farmstead the expectation of groundwater into the foreseeable future. Of course, that assumes a healthy playa — a playa that isn’t farmed through, a playa that hasn’t been impeded by siltation, and a playa with a grass buffer to hold back the silt and filter contaminants in the runoff.

Not only does the healthy playa’s natural hydrologic mechanism recharge the aquifer, the quality of the water also is improved.

Playas reduce nitrate concentrations. Nitrates are a common contaminant in the groundwater of agricultural areas. Nitrates are an important component in fertilizers, and they’re present in animal manure and septic systems.

“Nitrates will break down in the absence of oxygen. One of the things about playas with the heavy clay soil that they have, when that’s all saturated, the oxygen all gets pulled out of the system. As water moves through the cracks in the clay, the nitrate gets reduced back down to nitrogen and it’s lost out of the system. That’s important for having a good water quality; high nitrates are detrimental to human health.”

A healthy playa lake is a primary way groundwater is replenished by surface water. And a playa lake with a perimeter plant buffer traps sediments and improves the quality of water as it moves to the aquifer below.

Playa Country, which ended in late 2016, was a weekly show that featured conservation and wildlife experts — as well as farmers, ranchers and land managers — talking about conservation practices that improve wildlife habitat and landowners’ bottom-line. This episode of Playa Country was made possible by Playa Lakes Joint Venture and a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society with support provided by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.