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


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How to Cite

Bowen, M. W., & Lepe, L. (2021). Examining patterns and drivers of variability in playa water status on the High Plains of western Kansas, 2016–2019. Midcontinent Geoscience, 2, 15–32. https://doi.org/10.17161/mg.v2i.15910