Others’ Opinion: Water quality – Don’t undercut buffer law

Published 10:21 am Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Free Press of Mankato

Distributed by the Associated Press

While it’s good to see the bipartisan Legislature and the governor having a sense of urgency about the state’s water quality, recent changes to the buffer strip law passed last year leave nettlesome if not troublesome questions.

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Bipartisan changes to the law passed the Senate 61-0 on Thursday, though some GOP lawmakers apparently tried to delay implementation of the law by five years. That’s not advisable if we want to have the needed sense of urgency. The changes were mostly non-controversial and clarified the law’s intent, but some changes also seemed to leave open questions of enforcement.

The change clarified that local Soil and Water Conservation Districts have the power to enforce the buffer law. The law requires 16.5 foot buffers between farm fields and drainage streams and 50 feet along waterways considered public.

It makes sense to have Soil and Water Districts be the key enforcement arm. They will be working most closely with farmers to implement the buffers and so will likely have the best information on compliance. Putting enforcement in the hands of county board or county sheriffs could be problematic given the elective and political nature of those offices. Still, it appears counties would at least share some responsibility for enforcement.

But the changes to the law also apparently change some enforcement power of the State Board of Soil and Water Resources, moving the fine down from the standard $10,000 to $500. What is apparently unclear is if the new, lower penalty can be assessed on a daily basis. Then, it doesn’t look like such a reduction.

Also, the new law allows farmers to be compensated for the land they put into buffer strips based on the land’s previous production. But it’s a little unclear where that money would come from.

And if counties are going to be charged with much of the enforcement, instead of the Department of Natural Resources for example, they should get help paying for that mandate. Legislators are looking at increasing county aid from the state to help defray costs of enforcement.

All Minnesotans can agree on the need to improve water quality that in some cases is now not suitable for fishing or swimming. We need to make the buffer law work to support that common goal.