State must help make new buffer law work

Published 8:45 am Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Mankato Free Press

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

After debate and tweaking, the state’s new buffer law is in place and planting the vegetation along farm drainage ditches, rivers and streams is beginning.

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A lot needs to happen relatively quickly. The 50-foot buffers along “public waters,” such as streams and rivers, needs to be done by next year and the 16.5-foot buffer strips along farm drainage ditches needs to be completed by 2018.

Which waterways require buffers was set this summer when the DNR released maps showing more than 90,000 miles of waterways in the state that require the vegetative strips. Some of those already have buffers, but the task of getting all the buffers in will be a big project.

Overseeing the implementation is the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) via the county Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs). The SWCDs are key, as their staff are working directly with landowners.

They help farmers decide if the buffer land should be enrolled in programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, in which farmers get an annual payment, or if other funding is available. They also help in everything from ensuring the buffers are properly measured and the recommended grass seed mix used to certifying that the buffers are in compliance.

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While county SWCDs did get some additional funding in the buffer legislation, they worry they will not have the necessary staff to spend the time needed to work with landowners.

That’s an issue the Legislature needs to pay attention to in the 2017 session. By then, BWSR and the SWCDs should have a better handle on how much time and staff they need to help landowners meet the deadlines. It seems clear that more funding will be required for implementation.

There are many details that will continue to be worked out as the process moves forward. BWSR will need to ensure the policies it has in place to oversee implementation and enforcement of the law are both true to the legislation and as useful and fair to landowners as possible.

Farm groups, for example, say more detail is needed on “alternative practices” that farmers can use if they don’t want to install buffers. Those alternatives need to show water quality improvements equal to or greater than installing buffers. Farm groups say current language doesn’t make it clear to farmers if alternatives they hope to use would qualify.

BWSR and, if necessary, the Legislature need to work through those types of issues with an eye toward making the process navigable for landowners while staying true to the water quality improvements intended under the law.