Most Minnesota rivers, streams and ditches will get grass buffers to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and create wildlife habitat under the compromise passed Saturday by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton.
But the new policy — hailed by Dayton and others as landmark legislation — is weaker than the original proposal offered in January by the governor. Wildlife, in particular, might benefit less because of the changes.
But Dayton estimated 110,000 acres will be put into buffer strips, and he noted that just 20 percent of public ditches currently are required to have 16.5-foot buffers. “This will make it 100 percent,” he said.
Current law requires buffers on public waterways, but enforcement by counties has been inconsistent.
The governor said the buffer bill will be one of his most important legacies.
“I think we’ll see in the next couple of years a very significant expansion in the number and quality of buffers to make our water cleaner and increase wildlife habitat,” he said. “Given the predictions that were made at the beginning of the session, that nothing would happen, I think this is a very significant accomplishment.”
Still, some see it as an opportunity missed.
“It’s a moderate step toward improved protection of our waterways,” said Jill Bathke, a natural resource scientist with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. “It definitely should have gone a lot further.”
Said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, who supported Dayton’s original proposal: “It’s probably the best we could get. I wish it were stronger. But this will be a nation-leading event. It’s a big deal.”
Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said it will have a modest impact. “No one should be under the impression that this buffer law will clean up our waters,” he said. “The waters of southwestern Minnesota will remain unswimmable and undrinkable.”
Under the new law:
• The Department of Natural Resources will map all public waters and ditches that will be subject to buffers by next July, and will be given $650,000 from the Clean Water Fund to do so.
• Fifty-foot buffers must be installed on public waters by November 2017 and 16½-foot buffers on public ditches by November 2018. Dayton had wanted the buffers by 2016.
• Many small streams, headwaters and ditches aren’t “public.” Dayton’s original proposal would have required that some of them, too, have 50-foot buffers. Now it will be up to the state’s 90 county soil and water conservation districts to identify those that need buffers.
• Over the first two years, the districts will share $22 million from the Legacy Amendment’s Clean Water Fund for technical assistance costs. That’s an average of about $242,000 for each district. After the first two years, funding comes from the state’s general fund. (Hansen believes tapping the Clean Water Fund for the soil and water conservation districts is unconstitutional.)
• The state Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) can withhold funds to soil and water conservation districts that fail to implement the law. The agency has been allocated $5 million from the Clean Water Fund to help with implementation.
• Counties, watershed districts or BWSR will enforce the law, and fines up to $500 can be issued; multiple fines could be issued. “You can’t just pay to not have a buffer,” said John Jaschke, BWSR executive director. (Under Dayton’s original proposal, the DNR would have enforced the law.)
• No new money is in the bill to pay landowners to take cropland out of production and plant buffers, but there is $33 million from the Clean Water Fund and the Outdoor Heritage Fund available for easements and other financial assistance to help landowners meet or exceed buffer requirements. The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and state Reinvest in Minnesota (RIM) program can provide annual or easement payments.
The Minnesota Farmers Union was among agriculture groups that opposed Dayton’s original proposal and lobbied for changes that are reflected in the final version.
“Most of our members can live with it, but some are not too happy,” said Thom Petersen, government relations director for the group, which represents 14,000 farm families.
Width of required buffer strips is one of the biggest changes from Dayton’s original proposal. Under the compromise, buffers on public waterways must average 50 feet, but public ditches will need only 16½-foot buffers, as Dayton noted. The difference going forward will be that rather than 20 percent of public ditches being buffered, now 100 percent should be.
“Most studies show the best water and habitat benefits start when a buffer is around 50 feet,” Bathke said.
Joe Duggan, a Pheasants Forever vice president, said some ditch buffers could end up being wider. Some farmers likely will connect with the federal CRP program, which pays annually for minimum 30-foot buffers.
“My guess is, in many cases when people do the math and see what CRP pays, we’ll get 30-foot buffers,” Duggan said. “I’m pretty confident that we’ll eventually have an extensive system of buffers that aren’t in place today, and they’ll provide nesting cover for pheasants, ducks and other wildlife. It’s not all we need to address water or wildlife issues, but it will be a major improvement.”
Said Dayton: “We put the deterioration of Minnesota’s water quality and wildlife habitat on the front burner. It directs attention to the fact that we need to be doing a lot more.
“It’s a very important first step, but it’s not the last step.”