Playa wetlands provide functions critical to the existence of life on the High Plains portion of the Great Plains, including surface drainage, aquifer recharge, and wildlife habitat. These small, circular, isolated depressional wetlands with closed watersheds have a dynamic, unpredictable hydroperiod, which is essential to the maintenance of biodiversity. Most numerous in the Southern High Plains of northwestern Texas and eastern New Mexico, playas have been impacted by sedimentation, pit excavation, road construction, industrial and municipal wastewater, feedlot runoff, urban development, overgrazing, and deliberate filling. Despite being declared, as a wetland class, jurisdictional “waters of the United States” since 1977, regulations and laws for conservation of wetland functions have seldom been applied to playas. The January 2001 Supreme Court decision, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC) v. United States Army of Corps of Engineers, likely eliminated federal regulation of impacts covered by the Clean Water Act in all but a few playas. Although still subject to the Federal “Swampbuster” provision enacted by the 1985 Food Security Act, extended natural dry periods allows for frequent cultivation and other activities in playas without incurring violation, contributing to the continued degradation of playa functions. None of the states with significant numbers of playas have regulations for the conservation of playa functions. Suggestions for the successful future conservation of playas and their associated functions include (1) increased promotion and implementation of existing federal and state conservation programs specifically for playas; (2) proposed state regulations for playa conservation; (3) recognition of agricultural impacts on wetland determinations; (4) creation of Wetland Management Districts to preserve intact, functioning playas; and (5) increased public education on the value of playas.
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Vol. 23 • No. 3