Broadview rancher John Wood stands in the middle of the great saucer-shaped depression of the playa lake. (Staff photo: Andy DeLisle)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
Birds dart toward the edge of the great saucer-shaped depression and disappear in a patch of yellowed grass. John Wood stands in the middle of his concave field, and observes the flurry, amused.
Some seasons, his field fills with water. This summer, a drought has caked the root-beer dirt, driven fissures through it. Mint-green sage and sporadic reeds cover its bottom, like camouflage.
Despite its appearance, this is no ordinary field, but a wetland. Wood owns one of the largest playa lakes in Curry County. The depression spans 154 acres. A good rain — of 3 inches or more — will transform it into an oasis.
“People around here used to think of (playas) as wastelands, but they really aren’t,” said Wood, a third-generation rancher and farmer who owns 800 acres of land in Broadview.
Wood does not allow his cattle to graze near the playa. He is one of less than a dozen farmers and ranchers in eastern New Mexico enrolled in a government incentive program, which pays landowners to restore and conserve playas and nearby uplands, according to officials.
“There’s just so much we don’t know about what’s under our feet,” said Wood, who is in the third year of his involvement in the conservation program.
Awareness of playas, however, is growing, according to New Mexico conservationists. Especially as evidence shows that playas, naturally occurring wetlands that go through dry and wet cycles, are the primary source of recharge for the Ogallala Aquifer.
Research indicates the High Plains aquifer will dry up in 30 to 40 years.
“People are just now becoming aware of what they used to think of as mud holes,” said Tish McDaniel, a local conservationist.
Playas “are the sole lifeline to making that resource (the aquifer) last longer,” according to Debbie Slobe, spokesperson for the Playa Lakes Joint Venture.
Deep sinkholes and fissures along the bottom of playas act as conduits for water to funnel into the aquifer. The soil that cups playas also has more hydrogen than soil found elsewhere, research indicates.
There are more than 1,000 playas in Curry and Roosevelt counties, and more than 1,000 in Lea County alone, according to local conservationists. More than 4,000 playas dot eastern New Mexico, and more than 50,000 are spread throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado.
Thousands of migratory birds depend on the wetlands for food.
Playas are plentiful, but about 95 percent are on private land, complicating conservation efforts, according to Slobe.
“(Playas) are a critically endangered resource,” said Slobe, her organization based in Colorado.
“Because they are in private lands, there is not a whole lot of access, so they are really not on the radar screen as far as conservation organizations go.”
People build roads next to playas, pave over them, and encircle them with crops; without native grasses to act as a buffer, they are being filled with sediment, according to conservationists.
“What we have seen in the last 20 years is really … (playas) are holding a lot less water than they did 20 years ago,” said Loren Smith, a professor of wildlife ecology at Texas Tech University who has studied playas for more than two decades.
“We know that playas are very important to aquifer recharge, and the aquifer is dropping rapidly, primarily because of agricultural use,” Smith said.
Still, he said, “No one knows how much water is going down to the aquifers. It can take years to go down. We need to determine how much is going down and if sediments are negatively affecting recharge.
“I tend to think they are,” Smith said.
Using temperature probes to track recharge, Smith hopes to prove his theory. If he and his colleagues succeed, government conservation efforts will boom, he said.
Meanwhile, conservationists race to educate the public.
In Clovis, they have made progress.
City Commissioner Randy Crowder and Public Works Director Harry Wang are working to safeguard the 11 playas in the city limits.
Wang is developing a plan to shield playa topsoil from future developments, he said.