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 (the map here shows their high concentration in the state, marked in orange and red). 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 are in agricultural areas, and have been altered to support farming and other uses. Some estimates hold that 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 sources:This map was produced based on research compiled by the Playa Lakes Joint Venture, drawing on work from the U.S. Geological Survey, Texas Tech University, and other partners. We owe particular thanks to Megan McLachlan, Ty Guthrie, and Lucia Barbato.

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.