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Most Minnesota farmers achieve buffer compliance, even as resentment lingers

A vegetative buffer is seen Thursday, June 13, in Wilkin County, Minn. Buffers reduce erosion and help prevent water pollution by filtering out phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment before runoff reaches waterways. Meagan Deanne / The Forum1 / 3
Vegetative buffers planted in Wilkin County, Minn., are seen Thursday, June 13, in a beginning phase. The buffers are part of the Wolverton Creek restoration project. Meagan Deanne / The Forum2 / 3
Newly planted vegetative buffers merge with a cornfield in Wilkin County, Minn., on Thursday, June 13. The buffers are part of the Wolverton Creek restoration project. Meagan Deanne / The Forum3 / 3

After years of fierce debate, political struggle and rewriting, Minnesota’s buffer law was finally implemented in November 2017 after being signed into law in 2015 by then Gov. Mark Dayton.

Buffers, sometimes referred to as riparian filter strips, are vegetated parcels of land next to rivers, lakes, streams or wetlands. They reduce erosion and help prevent water pollution by filtering out phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment before runoff reaches waterways, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

But many landowners and farmers bristled against the law’s mandate to set portions of their privately owned land aside to install 50-foot buffer zones on land along public waterways and 16-foot buffer zones on land along public ditches.

Unhappy as landowners might have been regarding the law, they are complying with it.

As of December, 96% of all land parcels adjacent to public waterways in the state were in compliance with the law, according to Minnesota’s Board of Water and Soil Resources.

Compliance along public ditches, however, is at just 70% compliance. Parcels along the Wild Rice River are at about 75% compliance.

Gabriel Foltz, district technician and county agricultural inspector at the Clay County Soil and Water Conservation District, said this is because the law’s requirements for 50-foot buffer zones along public waters had to be completed by November 2017 while the 16-foot buffers along public ditches didn’t have to be implemented until the following year.

What will happen to landowners who are not in compliance?

Minnesota state Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, was one of the lawmakers responsible for clarifying language within the bill regarding jurisdiction and eliminating buffer zone requirements for private ditches, which were originally included in the bill.

He was adamant the buffer law would not impose undo consequences upon landowners.

“At the end of the day, it will not require enforcement,” he said in October 2017, adding that he did not think local authorities would throw fines at landowners out of compliance.

The SWCD is responsible for providing technical assistance to help farmers achieve compliance, but does not have the power to enforce the law.

In rare cases where enforcement becomes necessary, Foltz said the SWCD will report the landowner to the county, which would officially inform the landowner that they are out of compliance.

The law allowed some freedom for landowners to propose alternative strategies to their local SWCD office for approval. The results of this aspect were mixed, Joe Smentek, executive director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, said in a statement to The Forum.

“Some Soil Water Conservation Districts were very helpful and were willing to look at a variety of alternatives to reach the requirements,” Smentek said. “Other farmers received little help and no real alternatives were approved outside of the strict adherence to the 50-foot requirement.”

To make sure landowners receive the help they need, Foltz said the SWCD is available to assist them by showing them exactly where on their property buffers need to be installed, flagging the boundaries of buffer zones and even recommending what vegetation to plant.

Even after the law's passage and the majority of landowners achieving compliance, the fallout has left a bitter taste in the mouths of landowners, farmers and conservationists alike.

Smentek described the law as a major thorn in the side of Minnesota's soybean farmers.

"Something that could have been the start of a conversation on conservation became a regulatory regime full of difficulty and resentment," he said.

He said allowing farmers to establish conservation strategies on a case-by-case, field-by-field basis would improve water quality more in the long run.

“The one-size-fits-all approach laid out by the buffer law has led to a number of complications; from problems with buffer maps that linger even now, to questions about the future availability of federal program enrollment, our members oppose and continue to oppose this approach, and will continue working to address the issues buffers were supposed to fix," Smentek said.

Conservationists expressed similar sentiment.

Duane Ninneman, executive director of Clean Up Our River Environment, a rural nonprofit group based in Montevideo, Minn., that advocates for the buffer law, and a farmer himself, said the benefits of buffer zones are a bit controversial.

Buffers are effective in establishing stable banks next to waterways and preventing erosion, but research like that of David Lobb, a soil professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada, calls the filtration benefits of standard buffers into question.

Even so, Ninneman said installing buffers along waterways is the right idea, in general.

"Protecting our water everywhere we can, especially in a time where we’ve had so much high water and flooding, we need to be concerned about erosion and how water travels from one place to another," he said.

And though compliance is high across the state, Ninneman said it's still worthwhile to call attention to areas that are not in compliance with the buffer law.

"We have plenty of political actors out there that are still using the buffer laws as a way to divide communities and farmers from the responsibilities of making sure that they keep the water clean,” he said.