AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – A project focused on conservation easements and restoration for the playa lakes of the Texas Panhandle and South Plains has been awarded $1.5 million in funding, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

According to the NRCS’s announcement, Ducks Unlimited, in partnership with the Playa Lakes Joint Venture and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, proposed this project and will contribute funding to work with the NRCS and landowners to obtain easements and “restore critical functions and values to historically agricultural wetlands.”

This effort was described as a Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership (WREP) project. WREP, the NRCS said, is a part of the voluntary Agricultural Conservation Easement Program that involves entering agreements “to leverage resources to carry out high priority wetland protection, restoration and enhancement projects to improve wildlife habitat.”

As previously reported on, playa lakes are dips in the prairies or plains that collect rainwater and are found in a uniquely dense capacity across the High Plains. The Texas Panhandle has thousands, which can gather around three or four feet of water in years of solid rainfall and serve as the center of biodiversity in the region.

Playa lakes support “185 bird species, 450 plant species, 13 amphibian species, and 37 mammal species,” as mentioned by the NRCS, and act as the primary water sources for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds alongside resident prairie birds.

“Playa lakes make up about 2% of the landscape in the region while they account for 98% of the biodiversity, this is why playa lakes are a key part of the ecosystem out here in west Texas,” said Chad Reed, NRCS assistant state conservationist in Lubbock.

The Ducks Unlimited project was described as including 15-year or 30-year easements to protect and restore playa wetlands and neighboring uplands buffers in the High Plains. The project will focus on playas surrounding communities whose drinking water has been impacted due to irrigation, as well as improving monarch butterfly and lesser prairie chicken habitats.

“Restored wetland ecosystems filter sediments and chemicals that helps improve downstream water quality, enhances wildlife and aquatic habitat, reduces impacts from flooding, recharges groundwater and offers recreational benefits,” said the NRCS.

However, despite their benefits, as described by the TPWD, playa lakes are often threatened and destroyed as an effect of a range of farming and grazing practices. Road construction, irrigation, sedimentation, and overgrazing have negatively impacted playa lakes in the region, which is still grappling with longstanding drought conditions. Other reports from officials have said that their dependent species, such as the lesser prairie chicken, are similarly harmed by those factors as well as oil and gas development.

NRCS noted that the project partners are also working with other organizations targeting underserved landowners in Texas, with the aim of increasing their participation in the program.

This all comes after voluntary conservation efforts for species such as the lesser prairie chicken and its native playa lakes have been left as the primary protection strategy for wildlife on the High Plains, following the latest battle over federal protections for the lesser prairie chicken. While populations of the bird were set to be officially listed as endangered or threatened in March and granted federal protections under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Senate voted to end its protections in early May.

While lawmakers who worked to end the designation argued the federal rules would “undermine property rights” and instead argued for continued voluntary conservation efforts, the vote was largely opposed by the Center for Biological Diversity and conservation groups.

As voluntary conservation programs and projects continue in the High Plains, further information on WREP and playa lakes as well as technical and financial assistance available through NRCS can be found on its website.

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