Dennis Anderson (Star Tribune): Separating fact from fiction about Minnesota's buffer law

by Trevor Russell

A column by Dennis Anderson in the Star Tribune highlights the Legislature's attempts to undermine Minnesota's much-needed buffer law.

You can read the full commentary below, or read it on the Star Tribune site to leave a comment.

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Misinformation is rife about the state’s buffer law, passed two years ago, which requires farmers and other landowners to be in compliance with the statute by November. The law, an initiative of Gov. Mark Dayton, is necessary if Minnesota is ever going to clean up its lakes and rivers.

Some legislators who are fighting Dayton this session over buffers, as they did last session, argue that farmers haven’t had enough time to comply with the law. They also say the law isn’t flexible enough to be applicable to the many varying land and water complexes that exist throughout Minnesota.

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resource Policy and Finance Committee, is among Republicans who have included provisions in a House bill that will delay implementation of the buffer law; forgo compliance unless annual or other payments are made to landowners for installing buffers; change the definition of public waters; and reduce some buffer width requirements from 50 feet to about 16 feet.

The governor has stated many times he will veto bills that weaken or delay the buffer law. How that turns out is now the subject of some intrigue, because this week a Republican-controlled House-Senate conference committee essentially called Dayton’s bluff by including anti-buffer language in its draft agreement.

Because that proposed legislation also includes funding for major state agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), the two sides will have to reach agreement — or large parts of state government will shut down in midsummer.

Let’s separate fact from fiction about buffers:

  • Minnesota waters are a mess, a fact empirically demonstrable. Agriculture is not the only culprit, but it’s the major culprit. And buffers, properly installed along streams, ditches and other waterways, will help.
  • Buffer opponents aren’t trying to improve the law, clean the state’s waters in an alternative manner or in good faith otherwise attempt to better Minnesota’s environment. Instead they hope to delay the law’s implementation, or weaken it sufficiently, until Dayton is out of office — hopefully, his opponents say, taking his buffer idea with him.
  • Too little time for farmers to comply? Hardly. In counties statewide, between 60 and 100 percent of landowners already have installed buffers — evidence that the majority of state farmers are conservation-minded. What’s more, landowners who apply for financial assistance get an extra year to comply with the laws.
  • A little history: The state’s public ditch buffer law was first passed by the Legislature in 1977. But more than a quarter-century later, only 20 percent of required ditches were buffered. Thus the new law, whose intent is to achieve uniform compliance statewide in order to reduce farmland runoff into streams, rivers and ditches, and hold stream banks together, reducing erosion and water siltation.
  • It is true many different land and water combinations exist throughout the state, and that “one size doesn’t fit all’’ when buffers are considered. That’s why the law requires only that certain conservation standards be achieved — however a landowner wants to achieve them. Some ditches, for example, have berms alongside them, so water from farm fields enters the ditches not over the tops of the berms but through the berms, in pipes connected to a farm field’s drain tiles.
  • To accommodate these and other situations, the BWSR has developed alternatives practices that achieve the same conservation goals as buffers. Custom compliance alternatives also are possible.
  • Many, if not most, farmers will qualify for financial aid for buffer or similar installations. The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), for example, offers multiyear contracts that pay per-acre fees on qualified buffers. Also CREP — the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program — has money, as do the federal programs EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and CSP, the Conservation Stewardship Program.
  • Finally, some buffer opponents argue that the law unfairly, or perhaps illegally, requires farmers and other landowners to forgo use of their land without compensation. Not true. The law only requires them to install buffers so they don’t pollute or otherwise destroy public waters — the same requirement made of other Minnesota businesses and individuals.

In 1983, when a bunch of us started Pheasants Forever, the first legislation we pushed for, and saw enacted in 1985, prevented (theoretically) state roadsides from being mowed in summer before pheasants and other birds hatched their young.

Lo these many years later, that “law’’ is still not enforced — something the Legislature made sure of this session when it approved a bill that essentially validates, for farmers, their continued private use of this public resource.

In coming days and weeks, we’ll see if the same fate befalls the state’s public waters.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

Anderson has been the Star Tribune outdoors columnist since 1993. Before that, for 13 years, he wrote the outdoors column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He covers hunting, fishing, camping, boating, paddling and other outdoor activities, as well as natural resource conservation.