So how's your playa...is it holding water during this unusually wet year? Is it sporting a lush bloom of vegetation, in the water and on the land surrounding it?

If the answer to either question is yes, your playa lake is doing its job and should be appreciated as an asset, said a Texas Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist.

"Playa are a tremendous asset. But we don't often recognize them as such," said Ken Cearley, Extension wildlife specialist based in Canyon, at a June 27 Playa Lakes Appreciation Day. "They are a natural catchment structure in a semi-arid region. The water they catch and hold, and the

plant communities they produce, is valuable for farming, livestock production and wildlife."

Playa lakes are shallow, natural basins that dot the landscape of a large portion of the Central Great Plains. The early Spanish explorers documented them in the mid-1500s, describing them as 'small, plate-shaped, dry ponds' and tagging them with the Spanish word meaning 'beach.'

"We don't know why they were dubbed playas, and we're not entirely sure how they were formed," Cearley said. "But we do know there are more than 30,000 of them in the playa lakes region in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. They range in size from less than an acre to several hundred acres, and they cover a total of more than 400,000 acres."

Wet or dry, playas help support more than 246 species of wildlife waterfowl and other birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. They also help recharge the underlying Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground water source for the Central Great Plains, Cearley said.

"Some of the precipitation captured by playas returns to the aquifer along the perimeter where the clay basin, or bottom, meets other soils surrounding the lake," Cearley said. "They are a natural flood water containment structure in urban settings, a source of water for livestock when flooded, a source of grazing when dry, and a valuable source of wildlife habitat when managed for that purpose.

"The vegetation that grows in playas is mostly annual plants, many of which we consider weeds. But those weeds/plants produce food (seeds) and cover for wildlife such as waterfowl and pheasants."

Landowners can apply a few management techniques to keep playas healthy and functional, the specialist said.

"If you have a playa lake on farmland that's grazed, or rangeland, consider fencing it off," Cearley said. "Do all you can to maintain or encourage a buffer strip of native vegetation around the playa. A good, functional buffer strip should be at least one to two times as wide as the playa basin it protects.

"The buffer strip will protect the playa from silt and sedimentation resulting from runoff. It also provides a home and food source for wildlife, such as pheasants, quail and other species. The fence will help you plan and control grazing."

Light to moderate grazing, removing no more than 25 percent of vegetative growth per year, is recommended for overall plant health and to encourage plant and wildlife diversity, he said.

Landowners who want to manage playas and the buffer strips around them for pheasants, for example, should consider light grazing or complete deferral. A good rule of thumb is to protect the area from grazing during the growing season, he said.

Prescribed burning can also be an effective tool for playa management, he said.

High-tech tools such as hand-held global positioning system units can help landowners map playa lakes, their vegetation and wildlife resources, and integrate them with an overall management plan, Cearley said.

"Satellite-driven GPS technology, along with Geographic Information Systems software can help you digitally map almost any resource in layers," he said. "For a typical playa lake you might have an aerial photograph layer, a topographic layer, a layer representing periodic water surface area delineation, or a layer showing vegetation types and wildlife distribution."

These map layers can be viewed individually or in combination to aid the inventory and land planning process, the specialist said.

"Internet sites such as the Texas Natural Resources Information System (http://www.tnris.state.tx.us) provide free digital maps and aerial photographs that will help you manage your land," Cearley said. "Or you can generate your own maps using GPS/GIS coordinates and mapping software."

Managing playa lakes for wildlife is good land stewardship, Cearley said, but it can also add supplemental income from eco-tourism, bird watching, photography and hunting.

"Some local rural economies are generating significant income from wildlife enthusiasts who want to experience the great outdoors," he said. "Managing playa lakes for wildlife, and as part of your larger land enterprise isn't just good land stewardship, it's also good business."

Other speakers at the appreciation day briefed attendees on state and federal conservation programs, public conservation cooperatives and the 'pros-and-cons' of leasing land for recreational use.

The following Web resources can help landowners manage playa lakes:

Publications: Wetlands in the Texas Playa Region: http://www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov/news/pubs.html

Pheasant Management in the Texas Panhandle: http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/land/habitats/high_plains/upland_game/pheasant.phtml

Vegetation Management in Playa Lakes for Wintering Waterfowl and Managing Playas for Wildlife in the Southern High Plains of Texas are available through Texas Tech Unversity's department of natural resources management: http://www.rw.ttu.edu/newsletter/mgmtnotes.htm

Agencies: Texas Cooperative Extension publications: http://tcebookstore.org Texas A&M University's department of wildlife and fisheries sciences, Extension wildlife unit: http://wildlife.tamu.edu Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Private Lands Program http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/land/private/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program in Texas http://ecos.fws.gov/docs/partners/web/pdf/481.pdf U.S. Department of Agriculture: Natural Resource Conservation Service in Texas http://www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov Click on Find A Service Center.