Playas dot the landscape throughout the PLJV region. Photo courtesy of Brian Slobe.
In The News
Playa Post - August 2012
IN THIS ISSUE
When Jan Minton inherited her great-grandfather’s farm in Floyd County, Texas, she knew she was going to need some help. As a former Natural Resources Conservation Service biologist, she understands that ranching and protecting the natural ecosystem are not mutually exclusive. Wanting to restore the wetlands on the property, she reached out to the D.M Wood Foundation and Playa Lakes Joint Venture, who helped her acquire over $70,000 in funding to begin the much-needed improvements to her family’s farm.
“You guys are my heroes!” says Jan about the partners who helped make the playa restoration possible. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
According to Jan, the property had been ‘farmed to death’ by the time she took over its management. Over the years, two playas on the 854-acre property were altered to function as tailwater pits that capture and store water that runs off irrigated fields, with a large trench cut through the largest playa to catch and contain drainage water from the upper parts of the watershed. There was also sediment around the larger playa, which needed to be excavated and removed.
In 2007, with help from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a 64-acre buffer of native upland grasses and forbs was planted around the smaller playa. Last year, the D.M. Wood Foundation—with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Landowner Incentive Program—again helped Janet Minton with her restorations efforts, this time addressing the changes that had been made to the larger 67-acre playa.
In order to restore the playa’s function, the tailwater pit and ditch were leveled, removing four areas of silt, ranging from six inches to two feet. The silt was deposited back in the surrounding cropland outside a new grass buffer. The pit and ditch were leveled using the original soil that had been put in a pile, with the playa topsoil being the last layer restored. In addition, old farm and pumping equipment, utility poles and cement that had accumulated in the basin were removed and disposed of properly.
“When wet, this fully functioning playa will provide waterfowl and shorebird habitat, as well as aquifer recharge,” says PLJV Conservation Delivery Leader Christopher Rustay, “and because of the buffers installed, will continue to do so into the future.”
The buffer surrounding the smaller playa is now well-established and preventing sediment from reaching the playa. It has also increased the number of wildlife in the area, including pheasant and deer.
“Both restoration projects will help increase playa hydrology, which will improve the wetland plant community and provide more forage for migrating birds,” says Rustay, “although, with current rainfall patterns and drought, it could be several years before we see the full effects of the latest project.”
“Empowering ranchers to protect our natural resources in a way that it is helpful to their operation is core to our mission at the D.M. Wood Foundation,” says Executive Director Laura Wood. “Working with dedicated landowners like Jan Minton is a great privilege.”
Playa Lakes Joint Venture helps bring partners and funding together. For more information about playa restoration and funding opportunities, contact Christopher Rustay at 505-243-0737.
Water—or the lack of it—is of primary concern for many people living in the western Great Plains, especially as drought conditions continue. The effects of the drought can be seen across the landscape, but what isn’t visible is the steep decline in the Ogallala Aquifer—which underlies about 225,000 square miles throughout parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming—and the efforts to counteract it through irrigation system improvements as well as playa conservation.
“The water decline in the aquifer is extreme in some portions, especially down south in Texas and New Mexico,” says Craig Derickson, State Conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Nebraska.
Last year, with little or no precipitation, coupled with increased pumping of the aquifer to sustain crops, water levels in the Texas Panhandle were reduced by an average of two and a half feet. That may not seem like much, but the problem is that water is being withdrawn from the aquifer at a much greater rate than the recharge. A 2007 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that the recharge rate is approximately one inch per year, with a net overdraft of two and a half inches per year. When compared against a two and a half foot decline, the loss of water is enormous. In large areas of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, the water level in the aquifer has declined by 50 to 175 feet since pumping began in the late 40s.
To counter these issues, in 2010, the Natural Resources Conservation Service instituted the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, which offers more than $49 million annually in financial assistance to landowners through 2015. The primary objectives of the initiative are to reduce the quantity of water removed from the aquifer by increasing delivery efficiency, enhance water quality by mitigating water quality impacts from agricultural production practices, and promote recharge to the Ogallala Aquifer through playa wetland conservation.
“Since the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative was announced, we've saved more than 17 billion gallons of water, that’s over 53,000 acre-feet, in those eight states,” said Derickson in a recent interview for Playa Country radio. “In the last year, NRCS wrote about 450 individual contracts with producers and utilized about $15 million to fund practices mostly directed at reducing the consumption of water from the aquifer and improving water quality—specifically irrigation system improvements and new subsurface drip irrigation, as well as nutrient and pest management.”
“The water conservation measures that are encouraged and supported by the NRCS Ogallala Aquifer Initiative are necessary if we want this water source to be available for future generations,” says PLJV Coordinator Mike Carter. “When coupled with playa restoration and protection, which allows more recharge to the aquifer, both sides of the equation are addressed.”
The NRCS initiative includes funds to restore a minimum of 250,000 acres of playa wetlands and associated upland watersheds. Playas, temporary wetlands formed from rainwater and runoff, are the primary source of recharge for the Ogallala, contributing up to 95 percent of the overall return of water to the aquifer. Because they lack any outlets, the water either seeps into the underlying aquifer or evaporates. During dry periods, a playa develops deep cracks and fissures in the clay bottom, which are channels for recharge. But many of the approximately 80,000 playas throughout the region are not able to recharge the aquifer at all. To function properly, playas need excess sediment removed, a filtering grass buffer around the edges, and a watershed that allows water to reach the playa.
Currently, there are only a few practices for playa conservation allowed under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the funding source for the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative, but they are not attracting landowner interest or enrollments. NRCS is now considering how other US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs could help reach the initiative’s playa restoration goals. In addition, Playa Lakes Joint Venture is talking with various USDA staff—from NRCS Chief Dave White on down through state and local personnel—about how to involve conservation programs that are jointly administered by the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service, such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program.
“With all parties involved and working to find a way to attract landowners to playa conservation, I believe we can meet the goals of this initiative,” says PLJV Conservation Policy Director Barth Crouch. “We must succeed if we want to keep the Ogallala from going the way of the American bison.”
The Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) announces the availability of funding for habitat, research and outreach projects through the ConocoPhillips Grant Program. Those interested in applying should note that the application process has changed. Rather than sending them to state representatives first, proposals will be sent directly to the Joint Venture by November 1, 2012. PLJV will then work with states to make sure the project fits their priorities.
Proposals should deal with priority birds, habitats, and/or issues in each of the three program areas. In general, habitat projects should provide measureable gain for priority species in priority habitats; outreach proposals should be linked to demonstrable habitat improvements; and research should address PLJV’s identified research priorities. A one to one match is required.
Past grants have included restoration of borrow pits at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, exploration of the effectiveness of playa buffers in Texas and the broader region, and support for background work needed to develop a state-wide prescribed burn alliance in Oklahoma. Other projects have used these funds, once granted, as non-federal match for small and standard North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants, which can be a major selling point when mentioned in the ConocoPhillips grant proposal.
"Since 1990, ConocoPhillips has invested more than $2 million in conservation work within the Playa Lakes region. When leveraged with an average three to one partner match, this contribution has positively impacted more than 42,600 acres of wetland and upland habitat," says Brandon Houck, Director of Conservation Operations in the Western Region for National Wild Turkey Federation and the chairman of PLJV’s Management Board. “The ConocoPhillips grant program is very competitive, in part because of the critical non-federal match it brings to the table for conservation professionals seeking to match federal grants.”
This month, Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) completed the first phase of the New Mexico Playa Decision Support System (DSS), which will help wind energy developers avoid playas when siting wind farms in the eastern part of the state. The Playa DSS provides three integrated tools: 1) spatial data layers representing playas prioritized for wind energy development, clusters of playas, large isolated playas, and saline lakes; 2) PDF maps displaying the above data layers for every county in the PLJV region; and 3) a User's Manual with written guidance on how to apply and interpret the data layers and maps.
The New Mexico working group began meeting in April to provide input into the design of the Playa DSS. The group includes representatives from New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and New Mexico Environment Department.
These wind siting tools are part of a larger Playa Decision Support System being developed for the entire PLJV region. As additional phases for this and other states are completed, the data layers and maps will be made available on the PLJV website. The New Mexico working group will soon begin work on the second phase, which will create tools to help in the planning and implementation of outreach for conservation programs.
The Playa Decision Support System is intended for use by multiple stakeholder groups—including natural resource professionals, land managers and developers—providing them with spatially explicit data, maps, and written guidance that can inform decisions that may impact playas and their associated wildlife.
In July, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Technician Alex Daniels joined the Playa Lakes Joint Venture (PLJV) staff. With a background in wildlife biology, Alex has a broad range of experience using GIS for natural resource conservation applications including his thesis project, which investigated alternative methods of spatial analysis to better understand rates of habitat loss. He received his master’s degree in Forest Sciences with a specialty in GIS from Colorado State University and his bachelor’s of science degree in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology from the University of California at Davis.
Prior to joining the Joint Venture, Alex worked at Colorado State University in the department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture where he applied GIS to investigate water conservation, plant physiology, and global climate models. As a post-graduate researcher for the University of California at Davis, he studied the effects of stress on native salmon populations in California’s Sacramento/San Joaquin delta. In addition, he investigated honey bee genetics and behavior at the UC Davis Honey Bee Research Facility during his undergraduate years.
As part of PLJV’s Playa Conservation Initiative, Alex is continuing to develop the Playa Decision Support System—a tool that will help developers, land managers, and conservationists strategically plan where their efforts will have the greatest or least impact on playas. Using the best available spatial data and the latest science on playa ecology, the system prioritizes individual playa basins according to their estimated ecological value and identifies clusters of playas that likely have higher value functioning as a group.