Examining patterns and drivers of variability in playa water status on the High Plains of western Kansas, 2016–2019


  • Mark W. Bowen Minnesota State University, Mankato
  • Luis Lepe Minnesota State University, Mankato


playa hydroperiod, watershed land cover, tilled index, climate change, morphology, remote sensing


Playa wetlands are widely distributed across the High Plains of the central United States, providing a range of ecosystem services, such as groundwater recharge, surface water storage, and wetland habitat. Although playas are essential resources, few studies have examined the variability and controls on playa water storage. The purpose of this project is to determine how playa and watershed morphology, watershed land cover, and precipitation patterns affect timing and duration of water storage in playas. This project focuses on 92 playas distributed throughout a 10-county region in western Kansas.

Playa and watershed morphology were calculated in a GIS environment and classified into quartiles based on playa and watershed surface area. Watershed tilled index (i.e., percent cropland versus grassland) was determined using 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 Cropland Data Layers available from the National Agricultural Statistics Service and classified as either cropland (more than 75% cropland), grassland (more than 75% grassland), or mixed. Monthly precipitation data for 2016–2019 were compiled from the Oakley 22S High Plains Regional Climate Center weather station. Playa water status for 2016–2019 was classified monthly as either standing water or dry (i.e., no visible standing water) by visually examining four-band satellite imagery with 3.7 m resolution available from Planet Explorer (www.planet.com). 

Playa water status is influenced by a combination of factors, including playa and watershed morphology, watershed land cover, and precipitation patterns. Larger playas have larger watersheds and standing water more frequently and for longer periods than smaller playas. Playas in cropland watersheds store water more frequently and for longer periods than playas in grassland watersheds, though differences are not statistically significant. Standing water within playas is positively correlated with monthly precipitation and reflects a short-term response to precipitation patterns, regardless of playa size or watershed land cover. The strongest controls on playa water status are playa area, monthly precipitation, and watershed area. 

Playas are critical resources for the High Plains, providing a range of ecosystem services that are dependent upon the playa’s ability to store water. Playa functions are under continued threat from cropland expansion, climate change, and playa and watershed modifications. To sustain playa functions in Kansas, efforts should focus on conserving larger grassland playas and reducing sediment inputs to playas in cropland watersheds.

Author Biographies

Mark W. Bowen, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Department of Geography

EARTH Systems Laboratory

Luis Lepe, Minnesota State University, Mankato

Department of Geography


Barbato, G., Barini, E., Genta, G., and Levi, R., 2011, Features and performance of some outlier detection methods: Journal of Applied Statistics, v. 38, p. 2,133–2,149.

Bartuszevige, A. M., Pavlacky D. C., Jr., Burris, L., and Herbener, K., 2012, Inundation of playa wetlands in the western Great Plains relative to landcover context: Wetlands, v. 32, p. 1,103–1,113.

Bowen, M. W., and Johnson, W. C., 2017, Anthropogenically accelerated sediment accumulation within playa wetlands as a result of land cover change on the High Plains of the central United States: Geomorphology, v. 294, p. 135–145.

Bowen, M. W., and Johnson, W. C., 2019, Sediment accumulation and sedimentation rates in playas on the High Plains of western Kansas, USA: Geomorphology, v. 342, p. 117–126.

Bowen, M. W., Johnson, W. C., Egbert, S. L., and Klopfenstein, S. T., 2010, A GIS-based approach to identify and map playa wetlands on the High Plains, Kansas, USA: Wetlands, v. 30, p. 675–684.

Buchanan, R. C., Wilson, B. B., Buddemeier, R. R., and Butler, J. J. Jr., 2015, The High Plains aquifer: Kansas Geological Survey, Public Information Circular 18, 6 p.

Cariveau, A. B., Pavlacky, D. C., Bishop, A. A., and LaGrange, T. G., 2011, Effects of surrounding land use on playa inundation following intense rainfall: Wetlands, v. 31, p. 65–73.

Daniel, D. W., Smith, L. M., Haukos, D. A., Johnson, L. A., and McMurry, S. T., 2014, Land use and conservation reserve program effects on the persistence of playa wetlands in the High Plains: Environmental Science & Technology, v. 48, p. 4,282–4,288.

Daniel, D. W., Smith, L. M., and McMurry, S. T., 2015, Land use effects on sedimentation and water storage volume in playas of the rainwater basin of Nebraska: Land Use Policy, v. 42, p. 426–431.

Dennehy, K., Litke, D., and McMahon, P., 2002, The High Plains aquifer, USA: Groundwater development and sustainability: Geological Society, London, Special Publications 193, p. 99–119.

Easterling, D. R., Kunkel, K., Arnold, J., Knutson, T., LeGrande, A., Leung, L. R., Vose, R., Waliser, D., and Wehner, M., 2017, Precipitation change in the United States; in Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I: U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, D.C., p. 207–230.

Gunter, J., Hurd, G. M., Wedel, X., and Byrd, A., 2019, Kansas Statistical Abstract 2018: University of Kansas Institute for Policy & Social Research, 574 p. https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/handle/1808/29611

Gurdak, J. J., and Roe, C. D., 2010, Review: Recharge rates and chemistry beneath playas of the High Plains aquifer, USA: Hydrogeology Journal, v. 18, p. 1,747–1,772.

Hartman, M. D., Merchant, E. R., Parton, W. J., Gutmann, M. P., Lutz, S. M., and Williams, S. A., 2011, Impact of historical land-use changes on greenhouse gas exchange in the US Great Plains, 1883–2003: Ecological Applications, v. 21, p. 1,105–1,119.

High Plains Regional Climate Center, 2020, http://www.hprcc.unl.edu.

Hoaglin, D. C., Iglewicz, B., and Tukey, J. W., 1986, Performance of some resistant rules for outlier labeling: Journal of the American Statistical Association, v. 81, p. 991–999.

Johnson, L. A., Haukos, D. A., Smith, L. M., and McMurry, S. T., 2012, Physical loss and modification of Southern Great Plains playas: Journal of Environmental Management, v. 112, p. 275–283.

Johnson, W. P., Rice, M. B., Haukos, D. A., and Thorpe, P. P., 2011, Factors influencing the occurrence of inundated playa wetlands during winter on the Texas High Plains: Wetlands, v. 31, p. 1,287–1,296.

Kansas Department of Agriculture, 2019, Kansas Farm Facts: http://agriculture.ks.gov/about-ksda/kansas-agriculture.

Knighton, D., 2014, Fluvial Forms and Processes: A New Perspective: New York, Routledge, 383 p.

Kuchler, A. W., 1974, A new vegetation map of Kansas: Ecology, v. 55, p. 586–604.

Kustu, M. D., Fan, Y., and Robock, A., 2010, Large-scale water cycle perturbation due to irrigation pumping in the US High Plains: A synthesis of observed streamflow changes: Journal of Hydrology, v. 390, p. 222–244.

Lark, T. J., Salmon, J. M., and Gibbs, H. K., 2015, Cropland expansion outpaces agricultural and biofuel policies in the United States: Environmental Research Letters 10, 044003.

Luo, H.-R., Smith, L. M., Allen, B. L., and Haukos, D. A., 1997, Effects of sedimentation on playa wetland volume: Ecological Applications, v. 7, p. 247–252.

McGuire, V. L., 2017, Water-level and recoverable water in storage changes, High Plains aquifer, predevelopment to 2015 and 2013–15 (Scientific Investigations Report No. 2017-5040): US Geological Survey, 14 p.

Miller, V. C., 1953, A quantitative geomorphic study of drainage basin characteristics in the Clink Mountain area Virginia and Tennessee (Technical Report No. 3): Columbia University Department of Geology, New York.

Peel, M. C., Finlayson, B. L., and McMahon, T. A., 2007, Updated world map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification: Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions, v. 4, p. 439–473.

Sabin, T. J., and Holliday, V. T., 1995, Playas and lunettes on the southern High Plains: Morphometric and spatial relationships: Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v. 85, p. 286–305.

Shafer, M., Ojima, D., Antle, J., Kluck, D., McPherson, R., Petersen, S., Scanlon, B., and Sherman, K., 2014, Chapter 19: Great Plains; in Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment: U.S. Global Change Research Program, p. 441–461.

Smith, L. M., 2003, Playas of the Great Plains: University of Texas Press, Austin, 257 p.

Smith, L. M., Haukos, D. A., McMurry, S. T., LaGrange, T., and Willis, D., 2011, Ecosystem services provided by playas in the High Plains: Potential influences of USDA conservation programs: Ecological Applications, v. 21, p. 82–92.

Sophocleous, M., 2005, Groundwater recharge and sustainability in the High Plains aquifer in Kansas, USA: Hydrogeology Journal, v. 13, p. 351–365.

Strahler, A. N., 1957, Quantitative analysis of watershed geomorphology: Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, v. 38, p. 913–920.

Syed, K. H., Goodrich, D. C., Myers, D. E., and Sorooshian, S., 2003, Spatial characteristics of thunderstorm rainfall fields and their relation to runoff: Journal of Hydrology, v. 271, p. 1–21.

Tang, Z., Li, Y., Gu, Y., Jiang, W., Xue, Y., Hu, Q., LaGrange, T., Bishop, A., Drahota, J., and Li, R., 2016, Assessing Nebraska playa wetland inundation status during 1985–2015 using Landsat data and Google Earth Engine: Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, v. 188, p. 1–14.

Tsai, J.-S., Venne, L. S., McMurry, S. T., and Smith, L. M., 2007, Influences of land use and wetland characteristics on water loss rates and hydroperiods of playas in the Southern High Plains, USA: Wetlands, v. 27, p. 683–692.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2006, Land resource regions and major land resource areas of the United States, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Basin: U.S. Department of Agriculture Handbook 296, 667 p.

Vose, R., Easterling, D. R., Kunkel, K., and Wehner, M., 2017, Temperature changes in the United States; in Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I: U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, D. C., p. 185–206.

Weeks, J. B., 1988, Summary of the High Plains regional aquifer-system analysis in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1400-A, 30 p.

Zhang, H., Tang, Z., Bishop, A., Drahota, J., LaGrange, T., and Varner, D., 2020, Conservation significantly improves wetland conditions: Evaluation of playa wetlands in different conservation status: Wetlands Ecology and Management, v. 28, p. 85–102.




How to Cite

Bowen, Mark, and Luis Lepe. 2021. “Examining Patterns and Drivers of Variability in Playa Water Status on the High Plains of Western Kansas, 2016–2019”. Midcontinent Geoscience 2 (August):15–32. https://journals.ku.edu/mg/article/view/14999.