Critics frequently contend that Gov. Mark Dayton’s new buffer strip initiative is rigid, “one-size-fits-all” water quality regulation. But that objection, one raised by agricultural special interests, is simply inaccurate. Those who repeat this empty talking point apparently haven’t even bothered to read the proposed legislation.

Buffers are vegetative strips of land between crops and waterways. They are a time-tested natural filter that can help prevent agricultural runoff such as sediment and fertilizer from polluting rivers and streams. Dayton’s heartfelt push to toughen state buffer requirements is a pragmatic step, particularly after a recent report showed that most rivers studied in the state’s heavily farmed southwest corner are unfit for swimming and fishing.

Dayton’s initiative would generally require at least 50-foot buffer strips alongside perennial waterways. It has strong support from conservation and outdoor sports groups because it would improve habitat. But the state’s powerful agricultural industry has pushed back hard, with opposition centering on the initiative’s supposed rigidity.

The legislation, however, makes it abundantly clear that alternative methods of complying with the 50-foot requirement are allowed, as long as landowners work with soil and water officials or technical professionals to develop a plan. Legislation in both chambers helpfully puts “Alternative practices” in bold to help readers find this reference to other compliance measures.

According to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), options could include narrower buffer strips or a combination of other water management practices. A work sheet linked to on the DNR’s buffer Web page outlines these alternatives for landowners. The supposedly rigid buffer measure also contains a number of exemptions. For example, land already involved in the federal Conservation Reserve Program would not have to enlarge current buffers to meet the 50-foot requirement if a lesser width had been determined sufficient to enter that program.

Other objections understandably center on cost. Again, there’s a link on the buffer Web page to a work sheet detailing financial assistance available to landowners to help them comply. The governor has also called for a funding boost to assist landowners.

Agriculture has long had broad exemptions from federal clean water laws. Local governments and other industries have already made serious contributions to water quality. It’s time landowners stepped up. Dayton’s buffer initiative offers commendable flexibility to help agriculture do its part to protect Minnesota waters for future generations.