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Estimating inundation frequency of playa wetlands Using 1970s LandSat MSS Data: did irrigation practices artificially increase frequency and longevity of landscape wetness?

Brandon Weihs, Ph.D. Student, Geography

Project Supervisor:
Dr. David Haukos

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Bill Johnson, USFWS
Dr. Steve Sensie, USFWS
Dr. Grant Harris, USFWS

Location: Southern High Plains, Texas and New Mexico

Completion: December 2014

Status:  Completed

Inundation patterns of playa wetlands are important considerations for alternative energy development on the High Plains.

(1) Develop an accurate spatial remote sensing model to document hydrological condition of playas in the Texas High Plains.
(2) Assess accuracy of results from Landsat analyses.
(3) Construct trends of hydrological conditions of playas and saline lakes since the 1970s.
(4) Test competing models containing available landscape level data to determine if differences between the 1970s and 2000s are due to changes in climatic conditions or perhaps due to other factors (e.g., irrigation).

Progress and Results:
A primary objective of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan is to maintain (and restore) continental waterfowl populations at 1970s numbers. Playas are the dominant wetland feature in the Texas High Plains. Historical U.S. Department of Agriculture soil survey maps suggest there are more than 20,500 playas in this region. Although playas average only 6.3 ha in size and account for only 2% of the Texas High Plains landscape, they provide ecological functions critical to the persistence of nearly all flora and fauna in the region. Timing and duration of playa hydroperiods drive both plant and invertebrate production. Playas are vital migratory stop-over and wintering sites for migratory birds. Although current playa conditions, in terms of availability during midwinter due to natural flooding events, are increasingly understood, little is known about playa conditions during the 1970s through 1990s. Historically, playas were actually incorporated into many furrow irrigation systems, either as catchment basins or as tailwater recovery basins. Thus, the landscape during the 1970s may have been artificially wet due to irrigation. If average annual habitat availability, in terms of the percent of inundated playas, was enhanced due to irrigation runoff, then using waterfowl numbers during this decade may result in habitat objectives that are simply not reasonable under natural and current conditions. In 1972 Landsat 1 was the first orbiting satellite to begin collecting data with the expressed intent to monitor the Earth's surface, an effort that continues today through Landsat VII. Playa sample sites required for remote sensing modeling procedures will be selected using both existing NWI GIS data and digitized historical soil survey data. For the 1970s, Landsat data from this period is limited to information acquired using the multispectral scanner system (MSS) sensor. MSS data were acquired with a revisit time of 18 days at a nominal ground sample distance (GSD) of 60 m2. Sample results will support modeling efforts run in ERDAS Imagine. Model out-puts will be incorporated into a GIS to measure the spatial and temporal extent of wet and dry playa basins across the study area for the time period assessed. These results should provide reasonable estimates of the annual availability and duration of inundated playas for this period and better inform regional waterfowl population goals.

Figure 1. Study area showing SHP extent (red line), counties (light grey), and Landsat path/rows used (black line, no-fill polygons).

Figure 2. Wet Playas as a Percentage of Total Playas in January, June, and October for Path/Row.


Professional Presentations:
Haukos, D.A., W. C. Conway, D. Hett, and B. J. Weihs. 2017. Ecological State Change of Saline Lakes on the Southern High Plains. The Wildlife Society 24th Annual Conference, Albuquerque, NM.

Weihs, B.J. 2014. Spatio-temporal inundation patterns of playa wetlands and saline lakes in the Southern High Plains, USA. Final Report, USFWS, Region 2, I&M Program, NWR System, Albuquerque, NM.