Texas Landscape Project: Map of Playa Density in the High Plains

Panhandle Playa Lakes

The American High Plains are marked by up to 30,000 small, shallow ephemeral ponds, or playas, scooped out by wind erosion. Many, perhaps 18,000, are found in the Texas Panhandle. There, they provide a key home for over 185 kinds of birds, including a million migrating shorebirds, waterfowl, and songbirds that pass through each year.

However, the vast majority of the playa lakes in the Panhandle have been altered to support farming and other uses. As many as 40% of the playas have been cultivated and 70% have been dug out, or “pitted” to collect irrigation water. Others collect wastewater from sewage treatment plants or runoff from farmfields or animal feeding operations.

The Clean Water Act has provided some defense for these wetlands, but recent judicial rulings have put those protections in doubt. Increasingly, it appears that securing a sustainable future for playas will rely more on incentives, such as those under the Farm Bill, and on private sector interest in alternatives to intensive agriculture, including wind energy, hunting, birding and other forms of ecotourism.


Kenneth Seyffert recalls the rich bird habitat that playas provide, including the locale for his rare sighting of a Wilson’s Phalarope.


Map source:

McLachlan, Megan. 2012. GIS Director, Playa Lakes Joint Venture. Personal communication, February 2012. Playa Lakes Joint Venture. 2014. Playa Map. Shape file. http://pljv.org/PPv4_MapBook/probable_playas_v4_shapefiles.zip (Accessed August 27, 2014).

Selected references:

Haukos, D.A. and L.M. Smith. 2003. “Past and Future Impacts of Wetland Regulations on Playa Ecology in the Southern Great Plains”, in Wetlands, Vol. 23, No. 3.

Johnson, L., D. Haukos, L. Smith, and S. McMurry. 2011. “Loss of Playa Wetlands Caused by Reclassification and Remapping of Hydric Soils on the Southern High Plains”, in Wetlands, Vol. 31, No. 3.

Smith, L.M. 2003. Playas of the Great Plains. University of Texas Press. Austin.

Tsai, J., L. Venne, S. McMurry, and L. Smith. 2010. “Vegetation and Land Use Impact on Water Loss Rate in Playas of the Southern High Plains”, in Wetlands, Vol. 30, No. 6.