Grass buffers for playas in agricultural landscapes: A literature synthesis

Open-File Report 2005-1220




We summarize current knowledge about grass buffers for protecting small, isolated wetlands in agricultural contexts, including information relevant to protecting playas from runoff containing sediments, nutrients, pesticides, and other contaminants, and information on how buffers may affect densities and productivity of grassland birds. Land-uses surrounding the approximately 60,000 playas within the Playa Lakes Region (PLR), including intensive agriculture, feedlots, and oil extraction, can contribute to severe degradation of playas. Farming and grazing can lead to significant sedimentation in nearby playas, eliminating their ability to hold water, support the region’s biodiversity, or adequately recharge aquifers. Contaminants further degrade habitats and threaten the water quality of underlying aquifers, including the Ogallala Aquifer.

Grass buffers hold promise as a management tool to reduce the amount of sediments and contaminants from agricultural runoff that enters playas. Effective buffer width is determined by acceptable sediment-reduction levels, potential water flow and velocity, landscape and soil variables, buffer species, and vegetation structure. Various models have been developed to predict buffer effectiveness; however, most of these models, including those provided by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), remain unvalidated. The majority of buffer-effectiveness literature is based on simulated conditions in experimental trays or plots; no published studies of buffer design or effectiveness specifically address playas. Nonetheless, some general patterns have emerged regarding buffer design/effectiveness.

Buffers 10–60 m wide are generally considered adequate for trapping most sediments, although in some cases buffers need to be >200 m. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Wildlife Program in the Southern High Plains recommend a buffer width of ~33 m planted with a diverse mix of native shortgrasses and mixed grasses as a starting point. Most dissolved contaminants, however, are removed from runoff only when they infiltrate the soil, where microbes or other processes can break down or sequester contaminants. Promoting runoff infiltration requires wider buffers with denser stem densities than those required for filtering sediments, which may result in hydrological changes in playas. Ultimately, the balance between runoff and infiltration determines whether or not water eventually reaches a given basin. Long-term buffer effectiveness requires regular maintenance, including excavation to remove overburdens of sediments, repairing vegetation damage, and removing over-mature vegetation or invasions of noxious weeds.

Buffers may not be enough to protect playas; best management practices (BMPs; e.g., conservation tillage, contour tilling, and mulching herbicides into soil after application) that diminish soil erosion and contaminant runoff also may be necessary. Nutrient loads in runoff can be minimized by balancing nutrient input with nutrient requirements for livestock and crops. Pesticide application practices also require careful evaluation. Mowing or grazing rather than use of herbicides offer alternatives for suppressing invasive or undesirable plant species in buffers.

Future research should entail multiple-scale approaches at regional, wetland-complex, and individual watershed scales. Information needs include direct measures of buffer effectiveness in ‘real-world’ systems, refinement and field tests of buffer-effectiveness models, how buffers may affect floral and faunal communities of playas, and basic ecological information on playa function and playa wildlife ecology. Understanding how wildlife communities respond to patch size and habitat fragmentation is crucial for addressing questions regarding habitat quality of grass buffers in playa systems.

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USGS Numbered Series
Grass buffers for playas in agricultural landscapes: A literature synthesis
Series title:
Open-File Report
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U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Fort Collins Science Center
vi, 35 p.
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