Myths & facts: The Governor's buffer initiative

Following alarming reports of widespread pollution problems in agricultural regions of the state, the town of Adrian, Minnesota made headlines recently when residents were forced to rely on bottled water due to agricultural contamination in their drinking water supply. Adrian is now one of eight Minnesota communities relying on special water treatment equipment to combat excess farm pollution in its municipal wells.

Adrian, Minnesota is one more reason that during this month's State of the State Address, Governor Dayton expressed his displeasure with buffer opposition, saying he is "...unwilling to wait another year -- or longer -- for legislation that will significantly improve Minnesota’s water."

Expanding the practice of shoreland buffers presents an enormous opportunity to improve water quality and the state’s natural resources. The buffers created under the Dayton Administration's proposal will protect clean water and soil health while providing critical habitat for wildlife and pollinators.

Unfortunately, since the bills (HF 1534, & SF 1537, were introduced last month, a number of big agriculture organizations have come out in opposition to the initiative. Unfortunately, myths about the bill have proliferated in the halls of the capitol, often spread by opponents of the initiative.

Separating myth from fact

FMR and our partners are working hard to help legislators, farmers and everyday Minnesotans separate the myths from the facts about the Governor's buffer initiative. Here are the top 8 myths circulating on the buffer bill, and the facts behind the real initiative.

  1. MYTH: Farmers already do conservation, so we don't need buffers to protect our water.
    FACT: A recent study of four southwest MN watersheds found no lakes and only one stream segment safe for swimming and fishing. While many farmers use some conservation practices, state research shows that achieving Minnesota's water quality goals will require that 100% of the state's rivers and streams have buffer protections in place.

    Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to reach that goal. According to the state, a whopping 64% of Minnesota's streams and ditches have no buffer requirement in place under the law.

  2. MYTH: The buffer bill is a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
    FACT: This is simply untrue. The bill language explicitly allows for alternative water quality practices to be used instead of buffers.

    The language of the bill allows landowners to work with local technical experts to identify alternative conservation measures that would provide the equivalent water quality, soil stabilization and habitat benefits. As a result, landowners can choose to install a 50-foot buffer or design a conservation approach that achieves the same goals in a way that works best for the local landscape.
    • This is a proven approach: Minnesota's current 50-foot agricultural-buffer rule (for public waters only) allows farms to use an alternative approach under an approved conservation plan.


  3. MYTH: We need better science before implementing buffers.
    FACT: Buffers are one of the most common best management practices used on farms in Minnesota. The state already has a 50-foot agricultural buffer rule in place along most public waters, which has helped protect clean water for decades. The efficacy of perennial buffers is well established in research and practice. Calls for further study are simply a delay tactic.
    • The Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Best Management Practices Handbook estimates that on average, grass buffers reduce sediment by 86%, Phosphorus by 65% and Nitrogen by 27%.


  4. MYTH: Farmers can't afford to take that much land out of production.
    FACT: The state estimates that the buffer initiative will result in 125,000 acres of perennial vegetation. This amounts to about one-half of one percent of Minnesota's agricultural acres.

    The truth is that most farmers will be able to comply by converting very little land, and farmers can choose to enroll in conservation programs to receive payments for their buffer acres (see #6 below).
    • For example, in two counties currently enforcing the existing 50-foot buffer rule for public waters (Olmstead and Dodge Counties), results show that a majority of landowners were happy to comply, and most did so by converting less than one acre of land.
    • Recent analysis of agricultural lands in Iowa shows that a 50-foot agricultural buffer would impact only 11% of landowners, 71% of whom could comply by converting less than a single acre of land.

    The truth is that Minnesota's farm operations took more than 467,000 acres of land out of conservation programs since 2007. Adding a fraction of that land back into conservation (at taxpayer expense if they desire – see #6 below) is hardly unfair. And remember: landowners can still generate income on buffer lands by using them for haying, grazing, or harvest for feed, fiber and fuel.

  5. MYTH: The buffer initiative unfairly takes land from the landowner.
    FACT: Landowners retain control of buffer lands, and may still use a variety of practices including growing and harvesting perennial crops. Only annual crops would be prohibited within 50 feet of protected waters.

    Private buffer lands will remain privately owned under this bill. Landowners remain free to use their buffer lands as desired, provided that permanent vegetation remains in place.
    • The law does not grant the state any additional authorities over private land use in buffered areas.
    • Landowners can always use alternative conservation practices instead, and continue to farm responsibly within 50 feet of lakes and streams as directed by an approved alternative strategy.


  6. MYTH: Farmers would not be fairly compensated for the land
    FACT: The bill includes provisions for compensating landowners for installing and maintaining the buffer strips. Landowners who wish to receive compensation for their buffer lands may enroll in a number of publicly-subsidized programs that provide cost-share for buffers, including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM).

    The Governor also has recommended the following funding for FY2016-2017 for implementation of the buffer initiative:
    • $12,000,000 in Clean Water Fund money for RIM Buffers
    • $18,000,000 in Clean Water Fund money for CREP investments
    • $20,000,000 in bonding for CREP investments

    However, recent history in counties that are enforcing the state's existing 50-foot buffer rule (for agriculture along public waters) suggests that relatively few landowners will seek public compensation for doing their part to protect clean water.

  7. MYTH: The buffer bill will unfairly burden local governments.
    FACT: The bill provides a much-needed funding boost for Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs), which already serve as front-line conservation outreach and technical assistance providers across the state.

    The Governor also has recommended the following funding for FY2016-2017 for implementation of the buffer initiative:
    • $800,000 in Clean Water Fund money for buffer mapping and program coordination
    • $4,850,000 in Clean Water Fund money for local government implementation

    These additional funds will strengthen and invigorate local SWCDs charged with implementing the program, providing them with the resources necessary to do the job.

  8. MYTH: Buffers won't improve water quality in fields with artificial drainage.
    FACT: Surface runoff still occurs even in artificially drained fields. While water-soluble pollutants such as nitrogen that enter tile drainage may bypass some buffer strips, properly designed and maintained buffers will trap nutrients and sediment in surface runoff.
    • Saturated buffers are a proven best management practice that can be used to effectively controlling nitrogen in drain tile effluent – and are a perfect match for fields with 50-foot stream buffers.
    • If local conditions suggest a buffer won't do the job, landowners can work with local technical experts to implement alternative conservation practices that will protect clean water.

Act now to support buffers

FMR has joined the #BuffersNow Coalition, a partnership of more than 30 conservation, recreation, hunting & fishing, and habitat organizations working together to combat misinformation and promote grassroots support for the Governor's buffer initiative.

Act now: Please visit our advocacy page and urge your legislators to take action this year to protect our land, water and habitat with Governor Dayton's stream buffer initiative.

Conclusion

During this month's State of the State Address, Governor Dayton noted, "No one person or industry is responsible for our state’s deteriorating water quality; but every one of us is responsible for improving it." We agree. The buffer initiative is one of the most important state conservation proposals in decades., and has the potential to dramatically improve Minnesota's water quality, habitat, soil health, and climate resiliency.

With the support of FMR members and friends, we will continue to push for Governor Dayton's stream buffer initiative to pass the legislature and be signed into law.