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Continued: Who's protecting Minnesota's rural rivers?

Craig Cox, a vice president at EWG, said the buffer analysis was a natural because new mapping and photography technology makes it possible, and because Minnesota is the only state in the Midwest to have such a law.

“In the heart of the Corn Belt, I don’t know of any other state that has comparable protection,” he said. But such laws and their enforcement are critical “to strike a balance between what taxpayers pay for and what should be the basic responsibilities that go with the rights of land ownership,” he said.

‘I didn’t even know’

Drawing on federal land-use data as well as high resolution aerial photographs from 2012 and 2013, EWG found that only 18 percent of the waterways adjacent to cropland earned an “A,” meaning that 100 percent of the acres within 50 feet of the water were covered by natural vegetation. About a third had less than 70 percent. But there were major differences among counties, watersheds and even the same stream.

“It’s really a checkerboard, and kind of inexplicable,” Cox said.

Some county environmental officials disputed EWG’s grading system. Julie Conrad, land use planner for Blue Earth County, where three major rivers merge into the Minnesota River, said EWG judged their water protection efforts purely on agricultural land, and not on land with other owners or uses. The county’s mapping shows that when considered as a whole, their waterways are quite well protected, she said.

Cox said the study focused on farms “because that’s where the pollution comes from.”

One problem, county officials said, is that in many places, farmers, county and zoning officials don’t even know the law exists.

“I didn’t know about that ordinance, even though I sit on the soil and water board,” said Muller, who helps run a family farm of about 2,600 acres of corn and soybeans in Cottonwood County. He rents some cropland that borders a “nice creek” that is planted with natural grasses as part of a federal conservation program.

But there is resistance as well, Muller added. “It’s kind of a nuisance thing,” he said. “A lot of farmers, especially if they are renters, they say, ‘Let’s get as much out of this [land] as we can.’ ”

In addition, enforcement is a difficult and politically fraught problem, said several county environmental officials. It requires the backing and funding of a county board, which usually includes farmers or retired farmers for members.

“If this is ever going to be taken on on a larger basis, it has to come down from the state,” said Bucklin.

State environmental officials say that putting their weight behind the law requires a delicate balancing act.

“We’ve been careful not to push the counties over the edge of the cliff in their work,” said Rob Collett, water resource manager for the Department of Natural Resources’s southern region. “But I do think we could do a better job on seeking enforcement and follow-up.”

When counties do take action, they can be very effective. Conrad said that in 2012, the county launched a new effort to increase protections “because our rivers are highly valued.” They identified 336 landowners who need to install or improve their buffers, and so far 227 have started putting that land into conservation ­programs.

But now the hard part starts, she said — persuading landowners who are reluctant. “The backing of the county board is essential,” she said. “And the county attorney’s office has to be willing to prosecute it, too.”

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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