Louise Ehmke and sons Tanner, Layton and Cole play on their 136-acre playa (1986). Photo by Vance & Louise Ehmke.

Playas Bridge Generations and Cultures

The playas in western Kansas have always been important — even to the earliest people who were here over 10,000 years ago.

By Vance Ehmke, Kansas farmer and playa advocate

Sprayer stuck in a playa, somewhere in playa country (not ours!).

We have mixed emotions about playas. I don’t know how many times we’ve had to pull tractors or combines out of them. And I can’t count the number of crop failures we’ve had because of them. But, on most days, we’re thankful for them. If all we had were flat Harney silt loam soils, we’d lead a pretty plain life. But with the playas, we enjoy a lot of scenic and aesthetic breaks along with a greatly diversified flora and fauna.

This past spring, Louise, Jen, and I got to see a trumpeter swan on one of the playas west of the house. Not only that, but we’ve also seen pelicans, American avocets, snow and Canada geese, sandhill cranes, mallards, pintails, teal, tadpoles, fairy shrimp, and huge waterbirds with long bony legs eating fish! (Where did those fish come from?) Also, bald eagles and golden eagles. And the best swimmers of all — snakes!

Out in the country, you’ll see these low spots in fields — they’re all over. On our farm, for every 1,000 acres, there’s roughly 40 acres of playa lakes. Farmers call them ponds, lagoons, buffalo wallows. They can range in size from several acres up to 100 acres or more. On our farm, we have probably the largest playa lake in the county, and it’s 125 acres.

Aerial view of the Ehmkes’ 125-acre playa. Photo courtesy of Bill Johnson, University of Kansas.

The playa lakes are probably 130,000 years old and originated from subsurface salt deposits being dissolved. Here in our semi-arid climate, these lakes are dry most of the time, but during wet periods, they fill and hold water for several weeks or months. Our big playa will hold water up to a year.

We think these playas offer a lot of private benefits: aesthetic and recreational value; social benefits: improved water quality as well as aquifer recharge; and potential benefits: energy. Recently French researchers were here on the farm looking for hydrogen gas coming up out of the playas as a new energy source.

Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams brought a group of landowners and resource managers to visit the Ehmke’s playa in January 2017. Photo courtesy of Miruh Hamend.

We’ve had many others from all over the country coming here to look at the playas on our farm and elsewhere in western Kansas. Archeologists, geologists, biologists, geographers, engineers, soil and water conservationists, geomorphologists, geochemists, hydrologists, soil scientists, petrophysicists. And a lot of just regular people who want to see these places.

They’re looking for artifacts, pulling soil samples, radiocarbon dating, drilling to shale, putting in observation wells, collecting subsurface gases, counting and identifying all sorts of waterfowl and every living plant on the farm. The University of Kansas just started a long-term study here to document the contribution made in recharge to the Ogallala aquifer. Some are out there helping their son get his first goose. And some are just having a picnic.

The playas have always been important — even to the earliest Lane County people who were here over 10,000 years ago. These naturally occurring low spots held rain and snow melt which attracted prehistoric animals like mammoths, horses, camels, bison and all sorts of waterfowl. They were followed by mammoth-hunting Clovis, then later by nomadic Hell Gap and Logan Creek Indians, and more recently by Apaches, then Comanches, and finally Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapahoe.

Bison on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Kansas. Photo courtesy of Josh Mathis.

The Ehmkes have been here four and five generations, but the archeologists tell us there were 400 to 500 generations here before us. Here we are today separated from these early people by hundreds and thousands of years, all of us with wildly different cultures and languages and looks, and yet we still come to the same places looking for the same things.

Back in 1885 Vance Ehmke’s ancestors emigrated from Germany and homesteaded not far from the farm and seed business that he and his wife, Louise, own and operate. A transplanted Californian, Louise says she’s having the time of her life rearing a family and running a farm in the High Plains of western Kansas. Together they look forward to the rainy season when the hundreds of acres of playa lakes on their farm come to life.

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