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Buffer strips ahead of deadline; Dayton opposes big changes to law

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Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said his water quality law has gained good traction throughout the state, with nearly 75 percent of counties in compliance with buffer laws eight months before deadline. Maureen McMullen / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL—Landowners are making good progress toward complying with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton's signature water-quality law, leaving the governor firmly opposed to any legislative attempts to delay or revoke the new standards.

"To delay or weaken it is not acceptable and not negotiable," Dayton said Thursday, March 16, at a news conference celebrating landowners' growing compliance with a law requiring vegetative buffers be installed between public waters and private lands by November. "I want to thank the many, many farmers who have participated in this endeavor."

There are bills working their way through the Legislature that would delay or weaken the buffer law that passed in 2015 with bipartisan support. Dayton has promised to veto those bills if they reach his desk.

"Sticking your head in the sand or in the river bank is not a responsible way to deal with the reality of the situation," said Dayton, who has made improving the state's water quality a top priority.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who worked to pass the initial buffer bill, said he was surprised Dayton was so emphatically against delaying the implementation deadline by a year. He noted that because the governor vetoed last year's tax bill for an unrelated reason there currently isn't funding to help counties enforce the buffer law.

"I think it is important to get that funding piece in place and get counties in charge before we drop this deadline," Torkelson said. "It's not as draconian as it is described."

Recent analysis by state agencies found nearly 40 percent of Minnesota waters were polluted or impaired.

State officials say three out of four Minnesota counties are already 60 percent or more compliant with the new buffer rules. Counties in northwest and southwest Minnesota appear to have the most work to do to ensure buffers are in place by the November deadline.

Norman County is among four counties with the lowest rate of compliance, about 37 to 40 percent.

Courtney Habedank with the Norman County Soil and Water Conservation District said the county's abundance of farmland and topography have been some of the most significant challenges to gain compliance.

"With Norman County, it's so flat out here it makes it easier for people to farm right up next to the channel," she said.

Some landowners struggle with identifying which waters are deemed public, and therefore regulated.

"Some people argue that they don't think something is a public water because they've always farmed there, or their grandfather farmed there," she said.

Grant County earned a ranking just below 60 percent.

Joe Montonye, district manager with the Grant County SWDC, said the percentage reflects his department's "very conservative" approach to measuring compliance.

Montonye said the percentage was formulated by evaluating aerial photography of land parcels, which he said are dated to 2012. If it was unclear whether buffers met the required widths, he said they will need further review, but are not necessarily noncompliant.

"I've always been impressed with landowners in Grant County," he said. "We have a large number of landowners participating in the filter strip program. I don't know what's going to happen with the law. Under the current law, I've had a lot of questions about it, but I have not had anybody tell me they're not going to do it."

Vegetative buffer strips between farmers' crops and homeowners' lawns and state rivers, streams and lakes work as filters to keep fertilizers, other chemicals and runoff out of waterways. Buffers also help hold banks together to combat erosion.

Some farmers have been slow to embrace the idea of installing buffer strips, arguing that it is an unconstitutional taking of productive land. They also say that agricultural practices are becoming more precise, lessening the harmful chemicals that get into public waters and making buffers largely unnecessary.

Bruce Peterson, a Northfield farmer and member of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said public awareness is still the biggest challenge when it comes to getting farmers to install buffer strips. Many farmers are still trying to determine if they need to install buffers or if other conservation practices put them in compliance with the law.

"Farmers are trying to get all the information in front of them and then they'll get into compliance — I have no doubt about that," Peterson said.

In January, Dayton signed a deal with the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will provide $500 million in state and federal funding for farmers who are willing to put their land into conservation easements. The governor's latest budget proposal also includes $6.7 million to help farmers install buffer strips and $10 million to fund enforcement efforts.

It took an unprecedented mapping effort by the state Department of Natural Resources to identify all of the private lands that needed buffer strips. The state completed that work last year and created an interactive online map landowners can use to see whether they need to install a buffer strip.

State officials said nearly 4,200 Minnesotans provided input for the mapping effort and their feedback led to about 2,800 changes to the buffer maps that were created.

In the coming years, counties with the help of their soil and water districts will begin enforcing the buffer strip rules.

Maureen McMullen of Forum News Service contributed to this report. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.