Minnesotans wanting to know which direction their state is headed should pay attention in coming weeks as Gov. Mark Dayton squares off with farmers over clean water.

The squabble centers on whether crop producers, among many other Minnesotans, should be required to establish 50-foot perennial buffers along rivers, streams, ditches and other waters. The buffers could be hayed or grazed. The intent is to reduce the amount of phosphorous, nitrogen, silt and other runoff that flows through and out of this state, and, in many cases, poisons our drinking water.

Dayton made clear at a news conference Thursday in St. Paul he intends to hold tough to his buffer plan, which he first announced in January at the annual Department of Natural Resources stakeholder roundtable.

Calling a recent report detailing the toxicity of many southwest Minnesota waters "frightening," Dayton said the issue of whether, finally, to require the buffering of state waters is a fight over "the future of Minnesota."

Dayton's plan to create about 125,000 acres of buffers statewide was included in bills introduced in the Legislature this week.

Predictably, agriculture groups, including the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, oppose the idea, suggesting, in effect, that Dayton's "one size fits all" buffer plan is a cornball proposal better considered in the next legislative session — if ever.

The corn growers instead support current buffer laws and "their vigorous local enforcement" — a notion roundly regarded as hilarious, given that local enforcement of these matters, vigorous or otherwise, is widely lacking.

"It's very distressing to me to see … the threat to human safety and wildlife," Dayton said, "and yet see the unwillingness of those who oppose this to face the facts."

Dayton didn't say so, but the broader issue is that the nation is changing, and ultimately agriculture will have to change with it. The notion of individuals or businesses, farmers or otherwise, polluting public waters with impunity is so yesterday it finds little solace among citizens of any age or political affiliation.

People nowadays — Minnesotans perhaps more so than most — are more environmentally aware than any in history, and they believe deeply about the importance of clean air and water, healthy foods and sustainable resource management.

Sooner than later, these concerns will manifest themselves across a broad range of public policies.

That day hasn't arrived. But it's on the horizon.

Perhaps Dayton senses this, and hopes to catch the emerging political wave to gain passage of his buffer idea.

More likely, the governor, whose outdoors bona fides aren't easily dismissed, simply wants to do the right thing, realizing that not only is the health of Minnesotans at stake, so is their natural heritage and therefore their identity as people who immerse themselves in, and care about, the state's woods, waters and fields.

"I want to underscore the importance I attach to this legislation," Dayton said, adding he would talk to farm groups to "try to understand their concerns."

But, "Voluntary participation and inconsistent enforcement brought us to the state we're in today in terms of water quality," the governor said. "The time to act is now."

Dayton's agriculture commissioner, Dave Frederickson, said Thursday that establishment of a mile-long buffer on one side of a river, stream or ditch would consume about six acres of cropland.

In many cases cost-sharing to establish the buffers would be available and, by enrolling the buffered acres in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, farmers could receive annual payments.

Six counties already have implemented buffer programs with widespread compliance, said John Jaschke, executive director of the state Board of Water and Soil Resources.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said officials haven't penciled out the projected net gain or loss to farmers of converting cropland to buffers.

But the cost of doing nothing is too high, Dayton said.

And, simply, wrong.

"I don't think people should have to get paid … to do the right thing," Dayton said. "It rubs me the wrong way that we should have to incentivize people to do what they should have done long ago."

Passage of the buffer plan by the House might be Dayton's biggest challenge. Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, a farmer, is carrying the bill there. He issued a news release Thursday trotting out a timeworn trifecta of counterpoints, saying buffers should be voluntary, Dayton's plan would require condemnation of personal property and farmers "must be properly compensated."

Which direction is the state is headed?

Time will tell.