Focused Recharge Beneath Ephemeral Lakes (Playas) in the Southern High Plains, Texas

Bridget Scanlon, principal investigator

We quantified unsaturated flow beneath playa and adjacent interplaya settings at a site in the Southern High Plains (United States) to resolve issues related to where and how water moves through the unsaturated zone. This is the first study in which the data density (39 boreholes) and the variety of techniques used (physical, chemical, and isotopic) were sufficient to quantify spatial variability in unsaturated flow. Water contents, water potentials, and tritium concentrations were much higher and chloride concentrations were much lower beneath playas than in interplaya settings, which indicated that playas focus recharge. These results refute previous hypotheses that playas act as evaporation pans or that recharge is restricted to the annular region around playas. Water fluxes estimated from environmental tracers ranged from 60 to 120 mm yr 2 1 beneath playas and were #0.1 mm yr 2 1 during the past 2000–5000 years beneath natural interplaya areas not subjected to ponding. To evaluate the apparent inconsistency between high recharge rates and thick clay layers beneath playas, we applied bromide and FD&C blue dye to evaluate flow processes. These applied tracer experiments showed preferential flow along roots and desiccation cracks through structured clays in the shallow subsurface in playas.

FD&C Blue dye test showing preferential flow paths beneath a playa related to root tubules and interped surfaces in these structured, clay rich soils.

March 2006