Producer panelists share experiences with playa lakes at workshop

Half a dozen western Kansas producers shared their first-hand experiences with managing and working around playa lakes on their land during a panel discussion recently at the 7th Annual Playa Workshop in Liberal.

Panelists included: Mark Smith, Wallace and Greeley County producer and rancher; Darla and Jerome Luebbers, Wichita County dryland farmers; Tammy and Aaron Simons, Wichita County dryland and irrigated farmers; and Alicia Allen, Greeley and Wichita County producer with dryland and irrigated acres and a small cow-calf herd.

Playa lakes, as defined by Playas Work For Kansas, are round, shallow depressions at the lowest point of a watershed. They fill with water from rainstorms and run-off, which then slowly moves toward the Ogallala Aquifer or evaporates. These temporary wetlands recharge the aquifer and support wildlife. They’re most often called mudholes, buffalo wallows or lagoons.

Those on the panel were first asked why they enrolled their playa in some of the various programs to help restore the area. Was it for the money, the wildlife, all the above, or none of the above?

For Luebbers it was all of the above. The extra funds have helped with the increase in cost for inputs in recent years.

“Water conservation critical for us,” he said. “As far as hunting—that’s been something for me for a lot of years. I’ve been involved with Kansas Wildlife and Parks as an instructor for hunter education for 35 years. It all played a part in that for me.”

It’s becoming harder and harder for young hunters to find a place to hunt, and the additional areas playas provide is crucial for Luebbers. So is the soil conservation aspect of the programs.

“The rough part that we’ve had on it the last couple of years is trying to establish the grass with the drought conditions we’ve had,” he said. “Some of our forages that were in there came across really well this year.”

Smith had the same answer—all of the above. Especially in his area where there are a number of farmsteads that have run out of water.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re taking a look at the return per acre, return per field or looking at the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s just the right thing to do because there is a conduit between the playas and that groundwater aquifer.”

Playas help the area around them, and for Smith, it helps more than just the obvious.

“It’s better for wildlife, it’s better for everything. And the health of the land is right when the playas are right,” he said.

Simons agrees.

“I can remember years growing up in farming these spots we call lagoons,” he said. “And so many years that are wasted—crop either drown out or didn’t grow anything. I think it’s awesome that now we got wildlife potential in places for my kids to hunt.”

There are a number of programs available through the National Resources Conservation Service, Ducks Unlimited and a couple others. It can be complicated to find the best fit, but Luebbers said to seek the one that works best for your situation. Allen agreed, and said DU helped them with some of the buffer strip planting expense at the time.

Luebbers said combining multiple programs or initiatives proved to be a good fit for them.

When asked about the relationship between the owner and the tenant or someone else involved with the land, most of the panelists said it’s largely dependent on the particular situation. For Luebbers it was a matter of a conversation.

“It’s one of those things—it’s gonna be different for every scenario because what works for Mark if it was on rented ground (might not for) ours on rented ground,” Luebbers said. “And we just sat down and we were fortunate enough that our landowner is very conservative. And we’ve worked out a percentage with him.”

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Allen said for her, that subject is a tough one. When it comes to a landowner perspective, it comes down to what is important to you, and what’s important to the tenant.

Another question asked was whether or not producers know about playas and the restoration process and the programs available.

“I think the thing you’re up against on that is—what does a farmer like to do? He likes to farm and he likes to sell bushels,” Luebbers said.

Smith was in a little different situation as a landowner with a tenant. He owns the land, but still likes to manage it and do a lot of the legwork himself.

“And I just think it gets back down to the first question was we don’t have any templates (for managing land with playas),” he said. “They don’t have any problem going around playas. It’s just the right thing to do. And it’s the right thing for a number of reasons whether it’s environmental, land, water for them, aquifer, for us to be around.”

All the playa programs have a benefit, Smith said, and he’s not seen one that did not result is something positive.

“Because that’s one of our bottom lines is we have to make it work for me to live off this land,” he said. “It may not (always) work but there are ways to always make it work.”

Allen said eight years ago she had no clue what a playa was and the power they held for water conservation. Now that’s all changed. She’s on a regional advisory committee and has a water tech farm that helps with research for irrigation technology.

“But I think playas are the other piece of that,” she said. “That’s the double-edged sword not only do we need to reduce our usage of water, we’ve also got to increase our recharge.”

Allen said when she gets an opportunity to solve a water problem, she takes it.

“Some of us have playas on our farms and they function a lot better when they’re in conservation and when they’re healthy playas,” she said. “That’s why I’m glad to have playas on our farm so that we can do our part to sustain an aquifer.”

Tammy Simons agrees and believes there’s been progress about raising the awareness for playas and getting them restored. But it has to continue.

“Nobody up here is going to stop trying to enroll playas. I bet everybody up here has more on their land, or that they’re renting, who wish they can get in and make the right bid and get chosen and all that stuff,” she said. “I would just encourage any of the other producers in the room to go ahead and go through the paperwork and the steps that you have to do to enroll your playas. We have nothing but good things to say about the program that we’ve got them in.”

The Simons family members are doing all they can to conserve water where they live and it takes everyone to take action and keep moving forward.

“We cannot solve a water issue with just talking about it,” Simons said. “If we’re going to sit here in a room all today and then go back home and say well, that was nice—nothing’s gonna happen. So we have to take it upon ourselves.”

She said farmers are the first and best and always have been environmentalists, but they need to take that role as serious as we do. Especially when they’re in a situation where their farmstead ran out of house water.

“Every little bit counts and every bit of progress needs to be celebrated and as well as being shared with people like you out there who either are hoping that farmers take advantage of the programs that you offer,” she said. “Or if you’re a producer out there and don’t know anything about how to get enrolled, know that there’s tons of support in this room that can help you make progress on your own farms.”

For more information about playa lakes visit,;; www.pljv.or/playa-tools; or

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].