Mower County unaffected by latest buffer controversy

Published 4:30 pm Saturday, April 14, 2018

Mower County conservation officials are emphasizing that local landowners never would have faced the potentially stiffer penalties related to the new buffer law that became a widely discussed issue this week statewide.

In fall 2017, the Mower County Board approved an ordinance for buffer-law enforcement locally after working with Mower Soil & Water Conservation District staff, which has worked directly with agricultural landowners on buffer law compliance.

Mower County’s ordinance — which takes effect this summer — created a penalty order process much less severe than the proposed penalty released earlier in the week by the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources (BWSR) and that local ordinance will be what is followed for enforcement in the county, said Justin Hanson, district manager for Mower SWCD.

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“We have been hearing this week from landowners in Mower County who believe this proposed buffer penalty is a local problem and that’s due to a lot of misinformation getting put out by organizations,” Hanson said.

On Thursday, BWSR’s Buffers, Soils and Drainage Committee voted unanimously – due to negative public feedback – to reject a draft amendment to the Administrative Penalty Order Plan (APO) for buffer implementation. The amendment, which drew much criticism during the week, had proposed stiff penalties for non-compliance with the buffer law.

Earlier in the week, BWSR executive director John Jaschke sent a letter of apology to Minnesota landowners and farmers for releasing a draft proposal that was not in the spirit of the law and was created without engagement with key stakeholders.

Buffers are areas or strips of land kept in permanent vegetation – not farmed – to slow water runoff and help filter out pollutants, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, as well as sediment. They also provide wildlife habitat and stabilize land along water.

Under the 2015 law, landowners need to establish on public waterways a buffer averaging 50 feet wide with no less than 30 feet in any spot, unless approved for alternative practices. Public ditches must have at least 16.5 feet of buffer on each side.

Like most counties in Minnesota, Mower County and Mower SWCD officials decided last year that it did not want the state involved with buffer enforcement on local landowners, Hanson said.

“We wanted to handle it locally given the great level of volunteer participation in Mower County with buffer compliance and due to the progress we have made toward achieving full compliance since state legislators passed the law in 2015,” Hanson said. “We did not feel the need for an overly restrictive and steep penalty for buffers.”

Mower County had nearly 95 percent compliance before the state buffer law along public waterways. Today, 98.5 percent of Mower landowners have notified Mower SWCD that their buffer complies with state law or will be in compliance by this spring.