Shallow Bowls of Water Play Historic Role
‘Man About Texas’ Series
By Russell Graves
Field Correspondent, sportsandoutdoors.guru
MIAMI, Texas — For centuries, the wet-dry cycles of the high plains wetlands benefited wildlife and plant life alike. Perhaps no land feature has been so instrumental in supporting both man and Nature.
Since the Clovis period of 11,500 years ago, ancient people benefited from these shallow waterbodies as well. Artifacts discovered in an ancient Roberts County playa (just a few miles southeast of here) include spears and scrapers found in proximity to elephant bones. People of the Folsom period (10,900 – 10,000 years ago) supplemented their bison diet with various aquatic animals and ducks they captured from “playas.”
The Spanish term playa (rhymes with hi-ya) literally means beach. Perhaps Francisco Coronado coined the term when he crossed the plains in search of the fabled Quivira, the lost city of gold. Which we now know to be an ancient myth.
Pedro de Castañeda traveled with Coronado on the expedition in the mid-1500s, and made note of playas: “Occasionally there were found some ponds, round like plates, a stone’s throw wider or larger. Some contained fresh water, others salt.”
Much is true today, though from here in the Texas Panhandle to as far north as far western Nebraska, though many playas have been reduced by the farmer’s plow. It’s no secrete landowners seek to feed their families by maximizing agriculture production.
Throughout recorded history, playas are and remain a vital water source on the plains. They drew American Indians and 19th-century settlers. Comanches, and later hide hunters, knew that bison drank from the playas and often hunted them at the water holes.
In fact, one of the theories that attempt to explain the origins of the playas suggests that bison wallowing in the mud over time caused the depressions. Still known as “buffalo wallows” by many contemporary plains residents, playas were actually formed by decaying organic matter that formed carbonic acid and dissolved the caliche soil layer.
Once the caliche layer dissolved, various materials such as rock and organic matter permeated the soil and eventually formed a layer of clay in the bottom of the lakes that, when wet, is impermeable.
As more settlers moved into the Panhandle, farms and ranches sprang up around the playas. Over time, however, many playas were partially filled in or entirely eliminated as the area evolved into the agricultural breadbasket of Texas. Bill Johnson, a biologist for the United States Fish & Wildlife Service based in the Panhandle, says that most playa degradation came from agricultural practices such as irrigation ditching and close-proximity plowing.
Although the rate of destructive practices has slowed considerably, Johnson estimates that at least half of the playas that originally existed in Texas have been severely damaged or destroyed.
“Although they represent only 2 percent of the landscape in the Southern High Plains, playas are key to both floral and faunal diversity,” says Johnson. “They are the primary wetland feature in a very arid landscape — without functioning playas, both plant and animal diversity in the Texas High Plains would be very low.”
During the peak of the winter, Johnson says, as many as half a million ducks use the lakes in wet years. During the fall and spring migrations, that number increases substantially.
“The numbers of ducks, geese, cranes and shorebirds that use playas during migration periods and winter can be quite impressive,” he says. “Without functioning playas, it’s not a stretch to say that waterfowl numbers would be affected on a continental level.”
However, waterfowl and shorebirds aren’t the only avian species that utilize playas. The Panhandle’s premier gamebird, the ring-necked pheasant, is inexorably tied to the shallow water lakes.
According to Texas Tech University researchers, pheasants spend as much as 90 percent of their time around playa lakes during the nonbreeding season. Without playas, pheasant numbers and, ultimately, the local hunting economies would suffer.
Texas Panhandle towns such Hart and Nazareth host huge groups of pheasant hunters annually, which maintains a vigorous local hunting economy — even when the broader agricultural economy is marginal.