Defense: Stop the buffer law rollbacks

Water running off farm fields carries pollution into the nearest waterways.

Without a buffer strip of grass or other perennial vegetation, water runs straight off a farm field, carrying phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment into nearby streams, lakes and rivers.

Buffer law a bright spot in 2015

The passage of Gov. Mark Dayton's much-discussed buffer initiative was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise troublesome 2015 legislative session. The law established new perennial vegetation plantings or buffer strips along rivers, streams and ditches to help filter out phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment.

Sadly, since the law was passed in 2015, there have been a series of administrative efforts to undermine the extent of buffer protections, and clear signals that legislators aim to further weaken and delay implementation of the law.

Already off the map: private ditches 

The law directs the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to develop maps identifying which streams and ditches require buffer protections, and share those maps with landowners and local governments to assist in implementation. 

Gov. Mark Dayton made statewide news with a surprise announcement in late-January, when he instructed the DNR to stop mapping private ditches for inclusion in the law. This news came after legislators threatened to kill pressing public works water-quality projects: “Threats have been reported to me that DNR and [Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources] bonding requests — which are urgently needed to address the state’s serious water quality and infrastructure challenges — would not be considered by House leadership if private ditches were not retroactively exempted from the new buffer requirement."

As Dayton expressed his reluctance to order this action, the Minnesota Farmers Union, Minnesota Farm Bureau, Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association were all quick to publicly thank him for allowing their members to farm right up to the water line along their ditches.

Further legislative rollbacks anticipated

As legislators in both chambers have made clear in recent months, we should anticipate further attempts to undermine several additional aspects of the buffer bill in 2016, while locking in a series of agency attempts to limit the extent of buffers required by law. (A summary of expected rollbacks is below, while updates on related bills or programs will appear on the main legislative updates page.) 

As we noted in February, the DNR is already planning to produce maps that exclude a large number of public waters from buffer protections, in addition to the private ditches already off the map. We anticipate legislators to attempt to codify these shortcomings in law this session:

  • Failure to protect all public waters
    As defined by state statute, all waters that drain a land area greater than 2 square miles are considered public waters in Minnesota. However, as a recent Star Tribune article explained, the DNR has expressed its intention to ignore the letter of the law by mapping only those public waters included on 1970s-era paper maps. Made long before modern technology, the state estimates that these paper maps exclude about 57% of streams in agricultural portions of the state, including many miles of streams that meet the statutory definition of public waters but won't get buffers under the DNR's proposed approach.
  • Applying the wrong buffer width
    Many additional miles of streams may be given buffers that are too small. According to the state, about half of Minnesota's streams have been ditched or altered in some way. However, many of these altered or ditched watercourses are nonetheless still public waters in need of a 50-foot buffer. The DNR has instead expressed its intention to apply the 16.5-foot buffer requirement where public water streams have also been classified as a ditch. Initial estimates suggest this could result in about 38,400 acres of missing buffer protection, including streams with existing 50-foot buffers that could see buffers shrink to 16.5 feet.
  • Excluding public water wetlands
    Finally, the agency has decided to exclude public water wetlands that are not included on county shoreline zoning maps. Excluding these clearly defined public water wetlands from the buffer maps could result in the loss of existing buffer protections for as many as 55,000 acres of land; a serious retreat from the objective of the buffer law. 

In addition to "shrinking the maps," anti-buffer legislators are likely to propose additional rollbacks, such as:.

  • Delaying implementation
    Legislators have signaled their intent to advance legislation to delay implementation. While the current law requires buffers to be in place by 2017 for public waters and 2018 for ditches, we expect legislators to attempt to push back those dates until after the end of Gov. Mark Dayton's final term in office. (Dayton's current term ends in 2018)
  • Undermine enforcement
    It's no secret that rural agricultural landowners don't embrace state oversight over buffer compliance. We expect legislative attempts to undermine the ability of the state to enforce buffers laws and shift implementation enforcement to the local level.
  • Remove financial penalties
    We expect legislators to attempt to remove the state's ability to withhold state grants and project awards to local watershed authorities that refused to enforce the buffer requirement.

While FMR and our allies will continue to fight against these rollbacks, we know we can't succeed without broad public support for buffer protections. Sign up to become a River Protector to participate in our efforts to demand the governor and legislators stop any futher attempts to undermine this important water-quality law.

For updates, see FMR's main legislative page.
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