Kansas Playas

Western Kansas Potential Playa Areas (image by Jude Kastens)
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Published June 8, 2017
Location Kansas
Category Water Resources
Author Jude Kastens
License Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives - Creative Commons License


Prior to European settlement in the 1800s, the Kansas landscape was home to thousands of wetlands. In addition to providing habitat, sustenance and freshwater to indigenous and migratory wildlife, wetlands naturally provide additional services including surface water treatment, groundwater recharge and flood mitigation. While many Kansas wetlands remain intact, most have been altered through cultivation and other landscape and drainage modifications, and as a consequence, their ecological and hydrological functions have been compromised. Recent recognition and appreciation of the vital services provided by wetlands, from playa wetlands in the west to emergent wetlands in the east, has led to increased efforts within the state to study, preserve and restore these important native landscape features.

The Kansas Applied Remote Sensing (KARS) Program at the Kansas Biological Survey (KBS) has been involved in multiple recent efforts with the Kansas Water Office (KWO) to develop a current inventory of potential wetland areas (PWA) in Kansas. Identifying PWAs supports multiple initiatives in the Kansas Water Plan directly related to water conservation, water quality, recreational function and sustainability. The identification, monitoring, preservation and restoration of wetlands across the state will help maximize the ecological and hydrological services wetland communities provide to Kansans.

Playas, which are sometimes associated with “buffalo wallows” from the frontier days, serve as biodiversity hotspots across the semi-arid Central and Southern High Plains. In western Kansas, where rapid, irrigation-driven decline in groundwater levels of the High Plains Aquifer is posing a formidable problem for future water supply, playas are being examined as hotspots for aquifer recharge. About 85% of the 22,000 features comprising the Kansas portion of the Playa Lakes Joint Venture probable playa (PLJV-PP) dataset have been completely farmed over, inhibiting their ecological and hydrological functionality.

In 2013, KWO and KBS received EPA Wetland Program Development Grant funding to utilize newly available high resolution LiDAR elevation data to identify and map potential playa areas (PPA) in western Kansas. A second objective was to develop a playa catchment mapping procedure, which was applied to PPAs and also to PLJV-PPs in the study area. To map PPAs, the Topographic Wetland Identification Process (TWIP) tool was adapted for playa mapping. This effort was further supported through the development of elevation data preparation procedures designed to facilitate playa identification and playa catchment estimation. This web mapping application and feature service results from this research. Additional information is provided in KBS Report #186.

From this project, KBS identified more than 2,000 previously unmapped PPAs across an area containing about 40% of the PLJV dataset. With LiDAR data now available for all of western Kansas, KBS is pursuing opportunities to continue the mapping effort and complete the state’s playa inventory. In addition, KBS is seeking to expand collection efforts for physical and biological field data from Kansas playas, with plans to geospatially analyze these data to characterize similarities and differences in ecological functionality and services between different playa sub-populations situated throughout western Kansas.

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