When I first moved to southwest Kansas I had never heard the term "playa" before. However, it didn't take long for me to learn that playas play an incredibly important role in the ecosystem of Kansas. Playas are temporary lakes that form in shallow basins throughout Kansas and other areas of the High Plains, such as parts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado. Kansas alone is home to around 10,250 of these wetlands!
During the drier portions of the year (summer and winter), these playas appear as bare sandy areas or they can be covered with grasses so they are almost invisible. In the spring and fall when there is more rain, the basins fill with water and create thousands of small lakes that can dot the landscape.
In an area of the United States that only receives around 20 inches of rain a year, it isn't hard to figure out why these temporary lakes are essential to animals and humans alike. Playas are responsible for supporting more than 350 species of animals and more than 340 species of plants. For animals, they serve as a very important water source, especially during migration season. Migratory birds such as ducks, geese and cranes fly thousands of miles from their summer breeding grounds in the north to their wintering habitats in the south. Playas are critical resting places for the birds as they make their long journey. Without them, they would not have the chance to feed and recover energy before moving on again.
Birds are not the only animals that depend on these temporary pools. Other creatures such as dragonflies, raccoons, rabbits and mayflies visit the water as well. And, of course, there are the amphibians: animals such as frogs, toads and salamanders. Because of their uniquely porous skin and the fact that they begin their life in water, amphibians are not able to survive without it. This means that we can give credit to playas for allowing amphibians to exist in many areas of the High Plains.
Humans benefit from playas by drinking the water. We don't often drink water directly out of these lakes, but over time the water that fills the shallow basin will filter down through the many layers of dirt, sand and rock (becoming purified in the process) until it reaches a huge underground reservoir known as the Ogallala Aquifer. This aquifer is responsible for all of the water we drink, bathe with, and water our lawns and crops with.
The water that is stored in playas can also be used in some areas as irrigation for crops. Without playas, we would not be able to live in this arid region any more than the animals would. In fact, playas are so important to animals, plants and people that if you have one on your land, you can actually be paid to protect it through the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program!
For more information on playas and the important role they play in Kansas ecosystems, you can check out the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams website at www.kaws.org. If you are interested in wetlands in general, then be sure to stop by the zoo and take a look at our own wetland that was constructed in 2009 over by the waterfall. We noticed a decline in the quality of our duck pond water due to a recirculating system and over-abundance of nutrients.
Instead of using chemicals and other drastic measures to change the quality, we took a more natural approach and created a series of pools for the water to flow through with native plants to help remove the nutrients from the water. This process is not as fast as a less natural method, but we have already noticed significant water improvement. As always, this just goes to show us that Mother Nature really does know how to do things best!
Be sure to visit our new website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.