Juanita Exiga Wyatt, MFA – Artist

The Dearth ProjectWall Panels by: Junaita Exiga Wyatt, MFA


Playa Wetlands – Ecology

Playas are areas of high biodiversity because they are a natural source of freshwater that provide habitat to native plants and wildlife. This habitat supports nutrients and conditions for plant growth, along with breeding, foraging, overwintering, and migration stopover points for wildlife. If playas are negatively affected by surrounding land use, then biodiversity in the area decreases.

 American Avocet – Right

Long-Billed Curlew – Left

The Dearth Project

Wall Panels by: Junaita Exiga Wyatt, MFA


Playa Wetlands – Economic Value

There is inherent beauty and value to playa wetlands, but economists have been able to estimate the economic value of this water source as well. In the late 1990s, economic value of wildlife-related pursuits was estimated at >$180M in the Southern High Plains region. Playa-related wildlife and recreation (e.g., duck hunting) was responsible for much of this estimate.

Green-Winged Teal– Right

Northern Pintail – Left


Jonathan Whitfill & Victoria Marie Bee

The Dearth Project

Sculpture by: Jonathan Whitfill

Photo by: Victoria Marie Bee

Here, the artists depict common MISCONCEPTIONS that the public has about bodies of water in the Texas Panhandle.

Lakes are not Playas

Lakes always hold water, playas do not.

 & Lakes are not a Source of Recharge for the Ogallala Aquifer

Playas have a clay base which cracks during dry periods and allows water to percolate downward to the aquifer. Lake bottoms have a different soil composition which does not facilitate downward movement of water.


Ogallala Aquifer –Recharge

Recharge rates vary according to climate, precipitation, soil, and vegetation. Because of this variability, recharge rates are difficult to determine; however, its well know that the Ogallala is not a sustainable water source for the Texas Panhandle. Playas are the most important source for recharge – about 95% of aquifer recharge comes from playas.

*The photo was taken on March 16, 2015 at Caprock Canyon State Park – Lake Theo. Lakes are not a source of recharge and this particular lake exists east of the Caprock Escarpment and therefore is not geographically located above the Ogallala Aquifer. Did you know that most playa wetlands are located west of the Caprock Escarpment in the Texas Panhandle?

Soil and foliage samples are from (left to right): 1 Earl Crow Park, 2 N.B. McCullough Park, and 3 Charles A. Guy Park.

Jonathan Whitfill & Joseph Drake

The Dearth ProjectSculpture by: Jonathan Whitfill & Joseph Drake


Playa Wetlands Are NOT Playa Lakes

The city has altered and connected playas to provide a drainage system for storm water. They are called “playa lakes” to distinguish them from naturally functioning playa wetlands. This term is an oxymoron because lakes never dry and playas do. The majority of playa lakes within the city retain water all year. This makes them functionally different from naturally occurring playa wetlands that have frequent wet/dry periods. Collection Dates:

  • 1st set – 8/30/2014
  • 2nd set –  12/6/2014
  • 3rd set – 2/15/2015
  • 4th set –  4/26/2015

Samples were collected from the following playa LAKES in Lubbock:

  1. top self – Crow Park
  2. second self – N.B. McCullough Park
  3. third shelf – Charles A. Guy Park

PLAYA WETLANDS – A Family Learning Experience


We hope this learning experience will give you the opportunity to spend an afternoon outside with your children, observing nature, learning about playa wetlands, and creating art as a family.

Be silly. Get messy. Have fun!

The Dearth Project1st Graders Playa Art

Email your children’s artwork to                                                                                           lloydstrovas@gmail.com                                                                 and I will add it to this post!

Learning Objectives:

After completing this lesson families should be able to :

  1. Identify playa wetlands (and playa lakes)
  2. Name common animals associated with playas
  3. Explain the difference between a playa and a lake
  4. Create a piece of art about playas


  • Playa Wetlands – shallow bodies of water (typically less than 1 meter deep) that have frequent wet and dry periods.
  • Playa Lakes – these bodies of water have been altered (deepened and/or connected) to provide a storm water drainage system for Lubbock. This term is actually an oxymoron because playas dry up and lakes never do.


First, click here to read information on playa wetlands.

Start with a simple conversation about playa wetlands. You may want to ask your children the following questions:

  • Have you seen a playa?
  • What does it look like? (e.g., a small shallow body of water)
  • Where have you seen one? (e.g., in the park close to their house)
  • What kinds of plants and animals do you see around playas? (e.g., ducks, geese, shorebirds, frogs, salamanders, dragonflies, damselflies, etc. Your children may mention fish. It’s important to remember that playas typically dry up, therefore, fish are not naturally found in playa wetlands. In Lubbock, the city stocks playa lakes with fish because they have been deepened and typically do not dry up.)
  • What do playas do? (e.g., provide a water source for animals)
  • Have you ever noticed anything that would make playas different from other bodies of water, like lakes? (e.g., more shallow, water levels change frequently, tend to have a lot of trash/litter, etc.)

Through this conversation, you want to give children a picture of what playas look like and the function they serve. Maybe they don’t know what a playa is, but they have seen “lakes” in local Lubbock parks. You can explain to them that these bodies of water are altered playa wetlands – here in Lubbock, we call them playa lakes.

After you’ve had an introductory conversation with your children about playas, gather your art supplies (see activities below) and spend a morning or afternoon creating art outside!

Additional information for Older Children

  •  How playa wetlands got their name – In 1541, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado explored the Southern High Plains and when he came across playas, he described them as “a shallow, bowl-shaped depression a stone’s throw across.” These bodies of water reminded him of the beaches in his home country, Spain. Playa is the Spanish word for beach.
    • Have you children image what it would have been like to travel across the Great Plains and come across these shallow wetlands. What do you think they saw? How do you think they felt?
  • Playas are unique to the Great Plains – Approximately 95% of the world’s playas are located in the Great Plains region of the United States. There are three hypotheses about how playas were formed: 1) Small amounts of corrosive elements seeped into the caliche, then dissolved creating a depression that gradually filled with water. 2) During the ice age, the movements of glaciers caused depressions which filled with water as the ice melted. 3) Depressions were formed at bison wallows – where they rolled around in the dirt.
    • Have your children do a little research on these theories. Which theory has the most evidence? Which theory do they think is correct?


Here we have 3 activities for you to choose from. Pick the activity that best fits your child’s interests or age level. Or, do all 3! You will spend time outside for each one of these activities. Be sure to bring water, snacks, and sunscreen for the family!

Activity 1: Draw a Picture of a Playa


  • Something to draw on – paper/canvas
  • Something to draw with – crayons/makers/pencils
  • Something comfortable to sit on – chair/blanket


  1. After discussing what a playa is, help your child get their art supplies set up so they can draw.
  2. Sit next to them as they draw their playa. They may ask a you a question about what animals live near playas, or they may need help drawing a bird. The point is to spend a little down-time together, creating a piece of art.
  3. I highly suggest drawing your own playa. You can compare pictures and talk about why you included different elements (birds, frogs, grass, etc) into your drawing.

Melissa Oconnell2WEBArt by: Melissa O’Connell

Activity 2: Create a Photo Essay of a Playa


  • Camera
  • List of what photos they would like to include (optional)


  1.  After talking with your children about playas, you may want to ask them to make a list of all the things they should see when visiting a playa, for example, grasses, birds, frogs, etc.
  2. Take them to a playa and let them freely take photographs.
  3. Go home and look through the photos with your children. How many photographs were of things that they expected to see? How many photographs were of things that they didn’t expect to see? Maybe they took a lot of photographs of litter and trash. Ask your children why that might be. Would they be interested in spending an afternoon cleaning up their local playa?

Unpredictable Interactions Rebecca J Hopp WEBPhoto By: Rebecca J. Hopp

Activity 3: Create a Nature Sculpture out of Natural Objects

For a list of materials and instructions, please click here. Instead of doing this activity in your backyard, go to a local playa, collect materials you find on the ground, and create a piece of art.

We want to stress the importance of NOT collecting living organisms.  Please don’t break branches off trees or pull up grasses. Instead, collect sticks, litter, or fallen seeds to make your art.





20150509_111809-1-1This picture was drawn by a young lady at the Wolfforth Water Expo.

Wolfforth Water Expo

On Saturday, May 9th, 2015 (10:30am-4:00pm), the City of Wolfforth hosted a FREE public event on water.

The theme focused on water conservation and sustainability.

Dearth provided an educational booth for children. We talked to children and their families about playa wetlands and the Ogallala Aquifer. Children had the opportunity to draw their own picture of a playa. Below are a few photos from the event.

20150509_103245 20150509_103558 20150509_103707 20150509_111809-1-1 20150509_111813-1 20150509_113726

The Wolfforth Water Expo is a great example of people with different backgrounds and interests coming together for a common purpose!

Read more about the event here on the AgriLife Blog.

Or you can visit the event’s facebook page here.

Kevin Mulligan – The Story of the Ogallala Aquifer

Dr. Mulligan has an amazing collection of maps that tell the story of the Ogallala Aquifer in the Texas Panhandle (south of the Canadian River). To view the map, simply click the image. To download a pdf of the map, visit the Center for Geospatial Technology’s website.

First, the story begins with a map of the aquifer’s geology which was established millions of years ago as the rivers from the Rocky Mountains cut through the landscape. This map depicts the aquifer’s base.

Aquifer Base

The geology of the aquifer determines the depth. This image shows how the deepest parts of the aquifer are located where the ancient Rocky Mountains rivers once flowed through the Texas Panhandle.

Saturated Thickness

As you can see below, irrigated agriculture (center pivots) is directly related to the deepest parts of the aquifer (the ancient rivers).

Center Pivots

The greatest loss of playa wetlands in the Texas Panhandle is concentrated in areas with the most center pivots. This suggests that farmers filled the playas to allow for more farmland.

Playa Wetlands

The center pivots are also directly associated with the amount of aquifer water lost over time. The deepest areas (ancient rivers) are being depleted at a faster rate. These areas are typically associated with more profitable crops like corn.

Saturated Thickness Change 90-04

The Ogallala Aquifer is not rechargeable; therefore, it is not sustainable. Over the next 20 years, the aquifer will no longer be able support large-volume irrigation on most of the Llano Estacado south of the Canadian River.  However, humans are a highly adaptable species and we’ll find a way to persist and be productive in this region.

  • Note that this information applies to the Ogallala Aquifer in the Texas Panhandle, south of the Canadian River. North of the Canadian River, the aquifer holds a tremendous amount of water.  Although the water is deep and expensive to pump, there is a sufficient volume to sustain irrigated agriculture far into the future.
  • For more information on recharge rates, please visit THE SCIENCE.

Usable Lifetime

This post is based on conversations with Kevin Mulligan and information from the Center for Geospatial Technology.

Visit Dr. Mulligan’s faculty page or view some of his work at Texas Tech University’s Center for Geospatial Technology.