– Here at Farmfest on Wednesday, the five candidates for governor distinguished themselves not a bit on the conservation front. Politicians each, they instead played to the crowd, displaying, variably, a lack of knowledge about proper stewardship of land and water, an indifference to same or, in certain instances, a seemingly cynical regard for requirements intended to clean up the state’s many polluted farmland waterways.

Those who doubt this can watch the debate for themselves online at http://alturl.com/du8x4.

An interesting and worthwhile event that attracts interesting and hard-working people, Farmfest each summer provides opportunities for the review and discussion of farming issues — particularly, farming problems. This year, there are plenty of the latter, beginning with tariffs imposed by China on soybeans and ending with a lack of affordable health care for farmers and farm employees.

In between, putting a squeeze on producers’ bottom lines are high input costs and low commodity prices.

So, yes, conservation took a back seat on Wednesday, and perhaps rightly so.

Yet a similar forum will be held Saturday at Game Fair, with gubernatorial candidates who survive Tuesday’s primary scheduled to appear and answer questions that have plenty to do with conservation of land and water. Especially interesting will be responses to questions about Gov. Mark Dayton’s buffer initiative and its requirement to shield many of the state’s creeks, streams and ditches with grass strips to mitigate farmland runoff and pollution.

At Farmfest on Wednesday, buffers seemed about as popular as soybean cyst nematodes and northern corn leaf blight. This is odd, because even a little research reveals that many farmers signed up for buffers willingly, in some instances well in advance of Dayton’s move to mandate them. Also, a subset of farmers already benefits from certain types of buffers that retain water to slow runoff, while simultaneously retaining moisture needed by crops, especially during dry periods.

Yet Minnesota natural resource issues are far more encompassing — and far more dire — than mere support, or lack thereof, of stream and ditch buffers. Water is the main issue. But water can’t be conserved without a proportionate concern for land, a truism that underscores the depth and breadth of the state’s environmental concerns.

Equally problematic is the obvious lack of knowledge among state leaders about the seriousness of the issues confronting us.

Thus, today, two ideas that should be understood and supported by the state’s candidates for governor. Otherwise, it’s more of the same for Minnesota, polluted water being primary.

• The state’s clean water council needs to be reorganized and modeled after the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

Created in 2006, the council’s primary purpose is to offer advice to the governor, Legislature and various state agencies on programs and expenditures intended to clean up state waters. Which is mumbo-jumbo for having no power to do the right thing, even if the right thing is on the table for consideration.

More accurately, the council’s primary purpose more often seems to be that of an enabler of various state agencies to incorporate wholesale bunches of the $100 million per year Clean Water Fund into their budgets. Some of this money is used to confirm what most people already know: That something approaching half of the state’s waterways are polluted, making them unsafe for swimming and fish consumption.

More worrisome still are increasing instances of groundwater contamination and their effects on drinking water.

Better resolutions to water problems could be realized if most, or all, of the Clean Water Fund underwrote specific water cleanup projects according to competitive bids. Just as the Lessard-Sams council oversees the Outdoor Heritage Fund, a new Clean Water Council could oversee the Clean Water Fund, reviewing and recommending worthwhile projects to the Legislature.

The idea would be to make actual progress toward improved water quality by funding approved projects on the ground.

A bill establishing a new and more effective Clean Water Council has been introduced by state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, for consideration by the Legislature in its next session.

Upshot: Candidates for governor at Game Fair on Saturday should be asked whether they support reorganization of the Clean Water Council.

• A Citizens Conservation Commission should be established to set fish, wildlife and conservation policy in the state, including the hiring and firing of Department of Natural Resources administrators.

However radical this idea is by Minnesota standards, it’s run-of-the-mill in most states. Think Iowa (Iowa Natural Resource Commission), Wisconsin (Wisconsin Natural Resources Board), South Dakota (Game Fish and Parks Commission) and so on.

A blue-ribbon panel appointed in 2007 by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in fact recommended that a commission of citizens be appointed to play a new, and key role in Minnesota conservation delivery.

The point would be to allow land and water conservation ideas to bubble up more freely from the citizenry, and to be implemented more effectively. The latter would be a byproduct of removing the governor and Legislature from the dominant roles they now play in land and water stewardship and replacing them with a citizens panel whose decisions would be made freer of political considerations.

Minnesota is an outlier in the way it gives free rein to the governor, and especially the Legislature, to stand in the way of land and water conservation. Passage by voters of the 2008 Legacy Amendment showed what can be accomplished when citizens have a direct say in natural resource policies.

Upshot: Candidates for governor at Game Fair on Saturday should be asked whether they support establishment of a Citizens Conservation Commission to set fish, wildlife and conservation policy in the state, including the hiring and firing of Department of Natural Resources administrators.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com