Farm Horizons, April 2015

Buffer strip proposals prompt discussion

By Ivan Raconteur

Buffer strips have been in the news lately, due in part to a proposal by Governor Mark Dayton to expand the rules related to buffer strips between agricultural fields and waterways.

In January, Dayton announced he would introduce legislation requiring 50-foot water quality buffer strips around Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, and streams. He followed through on that pledge, introducing a bipartisan bill (HF1534/SF1537) – co-authored by Rep. Paul Torkelson and Sen. John Marty – that would significantly improve water quality statewide, according to a release from Dayton’s office.

The release states, “The legislation is designed to prevent pollution from entering the state’s waters – an effort essential to the health of Minnesotans, the protection of our drinking water, and the long-term sustainability of our environment.”

“The state’s existing rules on buffer strips are inconsistent, and they are enforced inconsistently – which almost always guarantees failure,” Dayton said.

The legislation would require at least 50 feet of perennial vegetation – otherwise known as water quality buffer strips – to surround Minnesota’s lakes, rivers, and streams. Buffer strips are designed to help filter out phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment by slowing runoff and trapping polluted sediment. Buffer strips then allow vegetation to absorb any pollutants, preventing them from entering the water supply.

Statewide, the governor’s proposal would require that 125,000 acres of land adjacent to water be designated for buffer strips, and covered in permanent vegetation, according to the release.

It further states, “the new law would provide a uniform buffer requirement across all of Minnesota’s waters, regardless of their classification or designation. It would require that landowners maintain a 50-foot buffer around lakes, rivers, and streams on their land. Landowners would be given a period of time to work with their local soil and water conservation district to install any needed buffers, and they would be eligible for financial assistance to do so.”

Opposition from ag organizations

According to, agriculture industry groups, including the Minnesota Farm Bureau, Minnesota Farmers Union, and Minnesota Corn Growers Association have indicated they support current law and oppose the governor’s buffer bill as introduced.

In February, the Minnesota Farmers Union unanimously passed a Special Order of Business regarding buffers.

According to the group’s website, “MFU is strongly supportive of buffers, but our members clearly feel the need of buffer strips greatly varies throughout the state. One size doesn’t fit all, and furthermore, there are a lot of questions in the countryside about this issue. MFU sincerely appreciates the time state agencies have spent so far reaching out to our members, and MFU remains committed to working with legislators and state agencies to come up with a program that addresses water quality and still is a common sense approach run by local officials and works for farmers.”

Bruce Peterson, Northfield farmer and Minnesota Corn Growers Association president, issued a statement on the proposed legislation that states, in part:

“The Minnesota Corn Growers Association supports the use of buffers as one of the many best management practices farmers use to protect water quality. We also support existing buffer laws and their vigorous local enforcement, which allows for farmers and local authorities to work together to seek water quality solutions that take into account the diversity of Minnesota’s farmland. Research shows that a one-size-fits-all approach to buffers and water quality likely will not be effective. This issue requires thoughtful consideration on how policy can best be crafted to make meaningful improvements in water quality. The impact any legislation will make on Minnesota farmers also must be considered. We do not believe a political debate during the few weeks remaining of the legislative session can adequately address all of these issues. Therefore, we do not support the governor’s one-size-fits-all proposal.”

The current rules related to buffer strips

Locally, buffer strips have been the subject of discussion during recent Wright County Board meetings.

According to Joe Jacobs, water resource specialist with the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District, the current state law regarding buffer strips has been in place since the early 1990s.

The current law applies to waters on the public waters inventory, Jacobs said. Protected lakes, wetlands, larger rivers and their tributaries are specifically listed.

According to the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources (BWSR), Minnesota counties are responsible for administering the Minnesota Shoreland Rules, Chapter 1620, that require a 50-foot buffer along rivers, streams, and lakes in agricultural areas that do not have an approved conservation plan in place.

The governor’s proposal states “any public waters,” which has not been defined, Jacobs said.

Kerry Saxton, WSWCD office manager, said the proposed legislation also refers to “perennial streams,” and that term has not yet been defined, either.

Saxton and Jacobs noted the proposed legislation is likely to change as it moves through the process, and may not be adopted.

Recently, Wright County approved moving forward with preparation of a grant application using Clean Water funds that would allow the county to complete an inventory of riparian buffers within the county.

These inventories help counties determine the level of compliance with the 50-foot buffer requirement.

Jacobs said the BWSR grants, have nothing to do with the governor’s proposal, and are intended to provide a survey of which areas are not in compliance with current law.

There is also a component under which a plan for communication and education regarding the rules could be developed and implemented.

“Most lakes are buffered in Wright County,” Jacobs said.

Six counties in Minnesota have implemented programs related to identifying buffer areas, according to Jacobs.

Why establish buffer strips on your land?

According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the following are some of the benefits of buffer strips:

• Helps protect surface water quality by trapping and filtering sediment, nutrients, pesticides, and pathogens in agricultural runoff;

• Helps protect groundwater quality by preventing contaminants from leaching into the water table;

• Creates food and cover for wildlife and may connect existing fragmented habitat for small birds and animals Wider strips are recommended to prevent entrapment by predators in narrow corridors.

• May help stabilize eroding banks;

• May reduce downstream flooding; and

• Provides habitat for important pollinator species that many crops rely upon, such as bees.

What are Minnesota’s requirements for buffer strips?

Listed are the requirements for buffers under the shoreland management rules and the drainage law.

Both of these sets of rules are managed by local governmental units:

In shoreland districts, agricultural areas adjacent to lakes, rivers, and streams require a buffer strip of permanent vegetation that is 50 feet wide unless the areas are part of a resource management system plan.

For any new ditches or ditch improvements, the land adjacent to public ditches must include a buffer strip of permanent vegetation that is usually 1-rod (16.5-foot) wide on each side.

Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

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