A Happy Playa and an Unhappy Lake

“Happy [lakes] are all alike; every unhappy [lake] is unhappy in its own way.” With profound apologies to Tolstoy and all literature readers.  Right now the Panhandle is full of happy playas and unhappy lakes, or more precisely, unhappy people having to deal with, live beside, and drive around very large new bodies of water. Well, not exactly new, just newly re-filled.

You see, one of the challenges urban planners and developers have in the Panhandle is draining flat places, especially once flat places are paved. So one solution has been to use the wrinkles in the landscape to make semi-artificial lakes, or to dig out the bottom of playas and turn them into lake-looking-lakes. The City of Amarillo has several, one of which was deepened eight or ten years ago, surrounded with trees and a nice walking path, and had a small restroom (brick out-house) added. It also serves as the drainage basin for that quadrant of the city. Excess water is pumped north into a stream that feeds into the Canadian River.

(As an aside, Amarillo straddles two watersheds, which makes life a little more complicated for the utilities department than in places like Dumas, Dalhart, or Lubbock. Water south of Old Route 66/ Amarillo Boulevard wants to go south into the Red River, while rain that falls north of the divide drains into the Canadian. *shrug* Amarillo just has to be different.)

Thanks to hard work, clean living, and El Niño, the Panhandle has gotten a year’s worth of moisture in six months, most of that in May and early July. Every playa is full to overflowing, and some parts of the region need to dry out. Mosquitoes arrived in full force, followed closely by clouds of dragonflies. We’ve had birds hanging around that avoided the area for the past five years, and the temperatures are below average. The humidity will not be discussed, except that it is NOT a dry heat. Flying in to the area in the early morning or late evening, the land seems spotted with diamonds as each little lake shines in the low sun. The grass is green, flowers appear everywhere, and all the world rejoices. Almost.

All the urban water management people are not rejoicing. You see, a happy playa is full. In contrast, a full urban lake is not a happy place. Neither is the office of the people charged with keeping that lake within “normal” bounds. Getting a year’s worth of water in six weeks is not “normal.” Getting six of those twenty inches in 48 hours is really not normal, if normal means thirty-year average. And that’s exactly what happened in Amarillo, and why the lake in Southwest/ John Stitt Park has eaten those trees, walking path, benches, bridge, and turned the outhouse into an island. And this with extra pumps running 24/7 to try to lift water out. I’ve had to drive past the lake several times over the past two weeks, and the water level is not changing visibly. If Amarillo gets another good rain, it could be quite exciting, as a major power transmission station takes up a corner of the park. It is higher than the lake by a foot or two, but I’m a little surprised no one has sandbagged the lake-sides of the station yet.

Farther south down the road that runs past the park, a playa is trying to eat a new subdivision. According to the regional newspaper, people are finding carp in their yards, as in foot-long fish. (Which raises the question of how carp got into a land-locked body of water and survived long enough to grow to be a foot and more in length. I don’t think it was a visit by a flying fish fairy.) The developer did all his homework, took precautions, set aside a significant chunk of the development to remain a playa, and well, the environment conspired against him and the people around the lake. And the playa cannot be pumped without a whole bunch of studies and paperwork concerning environmental effects and water transfers and so on. By the time all the forms are finished and the transfer is approved, drought will have lowered the playa back past the danger point.

Meanwhile, the playa closest to the school where I work is fat, wet, and happy. It’s been dry for several years, with dead grass in the bottom even after spring rains. Cattle wandered through it, but otherwise all the playa did was provide a little topographic relief as your eye went past it, looking west toward the mountains hiding somewhere beyond the horizon. Well, that changed in late May, when I kid you not, we got seven inches of rain in 36 hours. I was a little worried that I’d get an emergency phone call to come out and help move books and furnishings because the school was endangered. But the playa and good gutters did their job, although people really drove slowly to class the next morning (I’m told) because of the water on both sides of the road. The playa filled, overfilled, then absorbed more of the water and returned to a reasonable level. the birds loved it, and the mosquitoes chimed in with the school chorus during graduation.

By the time I got back and checked in earlier this week, the playa had shrunk a little more, but not by much. It is a very healthy, happy playa, with concentric rings of plants, several families of ducks living on the banks, dragonflies all over, red-wing blackbirds singing from the grass, and little cats-paw waves when the wind picks up. I suspect the biology and life sciences teachers are already planning how to work the playa back into their lesson plans. I admit, I pulled over, got out, and just leaned against the passenger door, listening to the birds and watching the ducks dabbling and splashing.

If you’re a playa, life is good. If you’re an urban lake manager, well . . .