Playas Recharging Communities Photo by Miruh Hamend

Playas Recharging Communities

Helping Towns Provide a Sustainable Water Future

Playas are a primary source of groundwater recharge and can be an important part of a sustainable approach to securing water for communities in eastern New Mexico. Throughout the region, aquifer levels are decreasing, and many communities that depend on the High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer are experiencing declining availability of groundwater. Throughout the Great Plains, there are a number of small towns that are at risk for continuing groundwater loss, which means their future water supply may be limited. Many of these towns are searching for solutions to continue providing abundant and clean water for residents including drilling more and deeper wells — just to provide the same amount of water. We are helping those communities prepare for a sustainable water future by cooperatively working to restore playas as part of a municipal water plan.

What Your Town Can Do

Communities can proactively address a declining municipal water supply by assisting with irrigation water conservation, better surface water management, and playa restoration and protection. Once water use has been reduced, healthy playas can provide a sustainable source of future water.

Playa restoration includes filling pits, ditches, and diversions, installing native shortgrass vegetation buffers, and managing surface water runoff to flow into playas. Low-tech, low-cost solutions for increasing the amount of water flowing through playas — while limiting sediments and impurities — are available. By diverting stormwater into playas, towns can keep roads and property from flooding while increasing the amount of groundwater recharge.

It is also important to reduce or eliminate competing water use. Although playas are a primary source of recharge, withdrawals from irrigation greatly exceed recharge from playas. However, some towns have found that when pumping from nearby wells is reduced or turned off, water levels in the aquifer rebound. Around the region, people are talking about and experimenting with how to lessen the amount of water used for irrigation and may be interested in programs which offer technical and financial support to retire irrigation wells near towns and municipal wells.

Your Community Can Benefit

How You Can Participate

Our partnership can work with communities to develop a restoration plan for the playas that feed the aquifer underneath town wells. This plan will identify opportunities, such as grant programs, to protect healthy playas and conduct restoration work for those that have been modified. Having healthy playas to the northwest of the town’s water supply provides the most benefit since water in the aquifer flows in a southeasterly direction.

More Water

Groundwater recharge is a continuous process; the water recharging through playas today will be available for use by the next and future generations with long-term playa and water conservation. A healthy, functioning system of playas can provide high-quality water to help support the needs of a small town. Playas across the region recharge at an average rate of about three inches per year * — that’s three inches of water the size of the playa moving toward the aquifer each year. For instance, a four-acre playa, which is a very small one, sends an acre-foot of water toward the aquifer each year. That’s 325,851 gallons of water, more than enough to supply a couple of families for a year.

*Gurdak and Roe, 2009. This report provides a review of all the playa studies with calculated recharge rates up to 2009. Three inches is an approximate average.

Cleaner Water

Clean drinking waterThe benefit goes beyond simple recharge; playas clean the water as it travels toward the aquifer. Studies show that water reaching the aquifer through playas is of higher quality than that going through other pathways. This happens in two ways: first, as rainfall and runoff travel toward the playa, the surrounding grasses trap sediments, which can carry contaminants into the playa; then, as the water moves through the clay floor of the playa, a second ‘cleaning’ process occurs as the soils beneath the playa remove nitrates and other dissolved contaminants.

Recreational and Educational Opportunities

Healthy playas provide habitat for wildlife and recreational activities for the local community. Wet playas attract thousands of ducks, geese and a variety of shorebirds during migrations, providing local hunting and birdwatching opportunities. Also, playas are a living laboratory where students can learn about wetlands, geology and the history of the region.