Ecosystem services provided by playas in the High Plains: potential influences of USDA conservation programs


  • Corresponding Editor: J. S. Baron.


Playas are shallow depressional wetlands and the dominant wetland type in the non-glaciated High Plains of the United States. This region is one of the most intensively cultivated regions in the Western Hemisphere, and playas are profoundly impacted by a variety of agricultural activities. Conservation practices promoted through Farm Bills by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that influence playas and surrounding catchments impact ecosystem functions and related services provided by wetlands in this region. As part of a national assessment, we review effects of agricultural cultivation and effectiveness of USDA conservation programs and practices on ecosystem functions and associated services of playas. Services provided by playas are influenced by hydrological function, and unlike other wetland types in the United States, hydrological function of playas is impacted more by accumulated sediments than drainage. Most playas with cultivated catchments have lost greater than 100% of their volume from sedimentation causing reduced hydroperiods. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has the largest influence on playa catchments (the High Plains has >2.8 million ha), and associated sedimentation, of any USDA program. Unfortunately, most practices applied under CRP did not consider restoration of playa ecosystem function as a primary benefit, but rather established dense exotic grass in the watersheds to reduce soil erosion. Although this has reduced soil erosion, few studies have investigated its effects on playa hydrological function and services. Our review demonstrates that the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) has seldom been applied in the High Plains outside of south-central Nebraska. However, this is the primary program that exists within the USDA allowing conservation practices that restore wetland hydrology such as sediment removal. In addition to sediment removal, this practice has the greatest potential effect on improving hydrologic function by reducing sedimentation in vegetative buffer strips. We estimate that a 50-m native-grass buffer strip could improve individual playa hydroperiods by up to 90 days annually, enhancing delivery of most natural playa services. The potential for restoration of playa services using USDA programs is extensive, but only if WRP and associated practices are promoted and playas are considered an integral part of CRP contracts.