Hydrologic, geologic, geomorphic, and mass-balance data suggest that most of the ∼30,000 playa lake basins on the Southern High Plains have developed by a combination of dissolution of caliche and piping of surface material into the unsaturated zone rather than by eolian processes as has generally been stated. A conceptual model suggests that particulate organic material, much of which is sorbed on smectite clays, is carried downward from the surface into the unsaturated zone by recharging water. The organic material is oxidized to CO2, which dissolves in the water, forms carbonic acid, and dissolves lithologic carbonates. Because organic material is transported and oxidized deep in the unsaturated zone, CO2 concentrations are much higher at depth than in the soil zone, and recharging water remains thermodynamically subsaturated with respect to carbonates and thus able to dissolve them throughout the unsaturated zone. Dissolution promotes lithologic instability, leading to piping and eluviation of material within the unsaturated zone. Playa basins expand laterally as recharge is concentrated at the edge of the playa floor because of lowered permeability in the center that results from accumulation of clays and other fine sediment.
Mass-balance calculations of gas, liquid, and solid fluxes beneath a playa basin suggest that sufficient mass is transported to account for the volume of the depression. Particulate flux is estimated by relating it to the CO2 flux out of the unsaturated zone. Solute flux is estimated from the difference between input values from the playa lake water and that observed in ground water. Gas flux is measured directly from gas samples at specific depths below the: surface.