Ancient Playa Lakes

Mar 29, 2017

On our farm, for every 1,000 acres, they’re roughly 40 acres of playa lakes. Farmers call them ponds, lagoons, buffalo wallows. They can range in size from less than an acre up to 100 acres or more.
Credit FROM LOUISE AND VANCE EHMKE / Kansas Geological Survey

VANCE: Hey! I'm Vance Ehmke and we farm in Lane County KS. Today Louise and I are going to talk about playa lakes.

LOUISE: Here in this part of the state we are truly the Saudi Arabia of playa lakes because there are over 23,000 in western Kansas-the most in the world.

VANCE: We have mixed emotions about the playas. I don't know how many times we've had to pull tractors or combines out of them. And I can't count the number of crop failures we've had because of them.

LOUISE: But on most days we're thankful for them. If all we had were flat Harney silt loam soils, we'd lead a pretty plain life. But with the playas,we enjoy a lot of scenic and aesthetic breaks along with a greatly diversified flora and fauna.

VANCE: This past spring Louise and I and Jen got to see a trumpeter swan on one of the playas west of the house. Not only that but also pelicans, American avosets, snow and Canada geese,sand hill cranes,tad poles,fairy shrimp, huge shore birds with long bony legs eating fish! Where did those fish come from? Also bald eagles and golden eagles. And the best swimmers of all....snakes!

LOUISE: Out in the country you’ll see these low spots in fields.  They’re all over.  On our farm, for every 1,000 acres, they’re roughly 40 acres of playa lakes. Farmers call them ponds, lagoons, buffalo wallows.  They can range in size from less than an acre up to 100 acres or more. On our farm, we have probably the largest playa lake in the county and it’s 136 acres.

VANCE: The playa lakes are probably 130,000 years old and originated from subsurface salt deposits being dissolved. Here in our semi arid climate, these lakes are dry most of the time, but during wet periods, they'll fill and hold water for several weeks or months.  Our big playa lake will hold water  up to a year.

LOUISE: We think these playas offer a lot of private benefits:aesthetic and recreational value. Social benefits such as improved water quality as well as aquifer recharge.  Potential benefits accrue as well. Recently French researchers were here on the farm looking for hydrogen gas coming up out of the playas as a new energy source.

VANCE: We've had many others from all over the country coming here to look at the playas on our farm and elsewhere in western Kansas. Archeologists, geologists, biologists, engineers, deomorphologists, geochemists, hydrologists, soil scientists, petrophysicists -- and just regular people who want to see these places.

LOUISE: They're looking for artifacts,pulling soil camples, radio carbon dating, drilling to shale, putting in observation wells, collecting subsurface gases, counting and identifying all sorts of water fowl and every living plant on the farm. The University of Kansas just started a long term study here to document the contribution made in Ogallala recharge.

VANCE: The playas have always been important-even to the earliest Lane County people who were here over 10,000 years ago. Once filled, These naturally occurring low spots held rain and snow melt which attracted prehistoric animals like mammoths, horses, camels, bison and all sorts of water fowl. They were followed by mammoth-hunting Clovis. Then later nomadic Hell Gap and Logan Creek Indians and more recently,Apaches then Comanches and finally Sioux,Cheyenne,Kiowa  and Arapahoe.

LOUISE: The Ehmkes have been here 4 and 5 generations, but the archeologists tell us there were 400 to 500 generations here before us.  Here we are today separated from these early people by hundreds and thousands of years.  And all of us with wildly different cultures and languages. And yet, we still come to the same places looking for the same things.  And we thought they were just lagoons!

VANCE:  This is Vance and Louise Ehmke from Lane County for the High Plains Public Radio Readers Book Club.