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Landsat classification of surface-water presence during multiple years to assess response of playa wetlands to climatic variability across the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative region

February 15, 2018

To improve understanding of the distribution of ecologically important, ephemeral wetland habitats across the Great Plains, the occurrence and distribution of surface water in playa wetland complexes were documented for four different years across the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GPLCC) region. This information is important because it informs land and wildlife managers about the timing and location of habitat availability. Data with an accurate timestamp that indicate the presence of water, the percent of the area inundated with water, and the spatial distribution of playa wetlands with water are needed for a host of resource inventory, monitoring, and research applications. For example, the distribution of inundated wetlands forms the spatial pattern of available habitat for resident shorebirds and water birds, stop-over habitats for migratory birds, connectivity and clustering of wetland habitats, and surface waters that recharge the Ogallala aquifer; there is considerable variability in the distribution of playa wetlands holding water through time. Documentation of these spatially and temporally intricate processes, here, provides data required to assess connections between inundation and multiple environmental drivers, such as climate, land use, soil, and topography. Climate drivers are understood to interact with land cover, land use and soil attributes in determining the amount of water that flows overland into playa wetlands. Results indicated significant spatial variability represented by differences in the percent of playas inundated among States within the GPLCC. Further, analysis-of-variance comparison of differences in inundation between years showed significant differences in all cases. Although some connections with seasonal moisture patterns may be observed, the complex spatial-temporal gradients of precipitation, temperature, soils, and land use need to be combined as covariates in multivariate models to effectively account for these patterns. We demonstrate the feasibility of using classification of Landsat satellite imagery to describe playa-wetland inundation across years and seasons. Evaluating classifications representing only 4 years of imagery, we found significant year-to-year and state-to-state differences in inundation rates.