Minnesota farmers should be dismayed that their leading industry groups are not among the many respected Minnesota organizations publicly backing Gov. Mark Dayton’s historic “buffer strip” water protection initiative. The absence of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Farmers Union on the list of supporters released Thursday by the governor’s office signals that those who till the state’s rich soil don’t want to do their part to protect our treasured waterways.
That is unacceptable. In a state that approved the 2008 Legacy Amendment sales tax to help clean up waterways, this lack of support tarnishes the reputation of the agricultural community.
Dayton’s initiative is clear and pragmatic. If passed, it would require farmers to take a manageable starting step to keep pollutants from farming practices — such as phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment — out of streams, rivers and lakes. These strips act as natural filtration systems. The state already has buffer-strip laws, but they have not been widely heeded or consistently enforced, though some counties have stepped forward with welcome cooperation from local farmers.
Dayton is calling for a more uniform requirement — at least 50-foot strips of vegetation on either side of most state waterways. According to state officials, this would result in about 125,000 acres of buffer strips.
The initiative would allow ample flexibility for landowners. It also doesn’t take the land out of use. Buffers could be used as pasture or for haying.
Proponents of the legislation include Pheasants Forever, Minnesota Trout Unlimited, the Nature Conservancy, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, Conservation Minnesota, the Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, the Izaak Walton League-Minnesota division, and the Friends of the Mississippi River. The backing of these groups isn’t a surprise. As groups concerned about habitat, they recognize the importance of clean water for drinking and recreation. Their political clout is formidable. They’ll need to wield it.
In making the case for the initiative’s legislation, Dayton and others cited a sobering recent report by the state Pollution Control Agency. It showed that shockingly few water bodies in southwestern Minnesota are both fishable and swimmable. We’d also add that the landmark federal Clean Water Act doesn’t cover the agricultural industry. Other industries, along with city wastewater treatment plants, are regulated and have made substantial reforms. Further water-quality improvement requires Big Ag to deal responsibly with its pollution as well.