Natural vegetation such as prairie grass has systematically replaced farmland along lakes, rivers and streams in Dakota County over the past decade.

An early adopter of shoreline buffer zones, the county has accumulated 89 miles of natural land that protects water from runoff and pollutants. As Gov. Mark Dayton advocates for legislation that would require 50-foot buffers around water bodies statewide, the county is providing insight on how it got residents to comply.

"It's really through systematic and relentless education and outreach," said Tom Berry, the county water resources supervisor.

Brian Watson, manager of the Dakota County Soil and Water Conservation District, will explain how the county developed and implemented its protections at two events next week. There will be a forum with local farmers Monday in Northfield, which Dayton plans to attend. Watson is also the featured speaker in a meeting that Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, is holding on the buffer strips at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Clarion Hotel in South St. Paul.

Hansen said he hopes to spread the message "that it isn't impossible to do this, because Dakota County has implemented it, and I think we can be a model that this can work statewide."

Dakota is one of the minority of counties in Minnesota that firmly enforce existing buffer regulations — 99 percent of Department of Natural Resources-designated shore land in rural Dakota County has a 50-foot buffer, Berry said.

The county had a head start, the political will and staff resources. It began converting shoreline in 2002, after county voters approved a $20 million bond referendum to fund farmland and natural area protection. A few years later, the county's Soil and Water Conservation District began tracking the shoreline buffers and assessing their progress.

While many farmers are saying Dayton's plan goes too far and takes their land, county officials said their experience shows the majority of landowners will voluntarily comply with regulations.

When the county decided to enforce buffer zones, they spent two years educating farmers on the need to transform their waterfront land, Berry said. Then they started sending warnings to people who did not add the natural vegetation. Ninety percent of farmers just made the 50-foot buffer without asking for compensation, Watson said.

"That surprised us," he said. Many people already had part of a buffer and only needed to add a bit more space or just didn't want to go through the red tape to get compensation, he said.

The county uses aerial photography to check compliance annually, Berry said.

Jessie Van Berkel • 952-746-3280