Conservationist discusses playa lakes

By Argen Duncan: PNT Staff Writer

Playa lakes, while a difficulty in farming, help recharge the aquifer under Roosevelt County and provide important habitat for wildlife, according to a professional conservationist.

Joe Whitehead, an area resource conservationist with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service in Clovis, spoke about playa lakes, depressions that catch water when it rains and are dry otherwise, Thursday at the Friends of the Portales Public Library meeting.

“It’s just unfortunate playas weren’t appreciated from day one,” Whitehead said.

For years, people didn’t know playas recharged the Ogallala Aquifer. People altered or eliminated the low areas because they made farming or other activities difficult.

“If it wasn’t for the playas, we’d have a different set of animals and birds and what not because they’ve grown up with the playas,” Whitehead said.

When the lakes are full, they attract birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates, as well as provide water for grasses that wouldn’t otherwise grow.

Also, birds migrating from Central and South America to Canada or Alaska depend on the playas for water as they move through Roosevelt County, Whitehead said.

The conservationist said playas are responsible for 85 percent of the recharge for the Ogallala Aquifer. If all the lakes functioned properly, he said, they would put 1-3 inches of water back in the aquifer annually.

Alteration or loss of playas, coupled with heavy use of the aquifer, has decreased available water.

As for how the playas resupply the aquifer, Whitehead said when it hasn’t rained for months, the bottoms of the depressions have large cracks that let water absorb into the ground before the clay swells and seals. After the clay seals the bottom, some water seeps into the ground around the edges.

Whitehead said sediment from farming disrupts water absorption and makes playas more shallow so water evaporates faster. Pits to drain or pump water, dumping trash and overgrazing in playas also cause problems.

“We need to educate people,” Whitehead said.

Because people can’t expect agricultural producers to simply quit using their land, Whitehead said, the federal government will pay farmers and ranchers to fence off playas. Landowners can also charge for wildlife watching and hunting around filled lakes.

For information, call 356-6629.