Playa Lakes: Treasure of the Llano Estacado

Our work here at Local Llano serves to help members of our region grow their own food or find local farmers and growers to purchase from, as well as finding local producers who provide baked goods, wine, soaps, beef, eggs, etc. But with the recent blessing of so much rain we have received, we can’t resist the opportunity to share about an incredible part of the Llano Estacado region that is an essential part of the landscape.

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If you spend any time driving near the plains, you are sure to notice the number of playa lakes that now make up part of the landscape. With any luck, you might also witness a wide variety of wildlife near them as well: birds, ducks, cranes, and maybe even a deer. The playas provide animals of our region with a source of water, but they also play an essential role in contributing to the Ogallala Aquifer. We want to share briefly about what the playas are, and why they play such an integral role in our region’s landscape.

What is a Playa Lake?

The word playa comes from the Spanish word for “beach”. Early explorers to the Llano Estacado region experienced a bit of confusion: some of them described this area as being dotted with dry lake beds. Others described the landscape as being dotted with small lakes everywhere. The reason for these differing descriptions is as simple as a little rainfall. A playa lake is essentially a depression in the Great Plains that results in a wetland in times of frequent rains. The bottom of the playa is usually made up of clay soil. With this design, the playa is able to hold water for a significant amount of time.


Why are Playa Lakes Important to the Llano Estacado Region?

Playa lakes benefit the Llano in many ways. As mentioned above, they serve as a water source for the vegetation and wildlife of our region. It has been estimated that 250,000 species of birds have been found in the playa lakes of this region. The ducks and birds also feed on grasses and seeds in the area, which helps to continue the process of growing new vegetation. The playas also serve as home for a number of invertebrates (some of whom will stay dormant for years waiting for the playa to fill up again).

Besides serving as a haven for wildlife and vegetation, the playas are valuable to the Ogallala Aquifer, which covers a huge portion of the High Plains Region of the United States. The design of the playas allows them to slowly seep water into the ground, where it eventually collects in the Aquifer. Over the past hundreds and thousands of years, the playas have been a great source of water for the Aquifer.

Can Playa Lakes be Protected?

The biggest threat to the existence of the playa lakes is sedimentation, the accumulation of eroded soil from the surrounding watershed. Another threat to the playa’s integrity is development of land to crops, homes, and businesses. Because playas are very dynamic, they respond and adapt to the unpredictable environment around them. Any attempt to stabilize them effectively destroys them. The best course of action is to leave them alone and appreciate the value they bring to the Llano Estacado region.

We would love to hear your knowledge and experience with the playas of the Llano. What information would you add to our blog post? If you would like to learn more about the playa lakes in our area, consider attending one of Ogallala Commons’ Playa Field Days.

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