Minnesota’s conservationists have long called for the state to enforce existing “buffer strip” laws to improve water quality and habitat essential for wildlife. Now that Gov. Mark Dayton has issued a timely call to toughen these laws, the state’s influential outdoor sports enthusiasts and environmental advocates need to wield their collective clout this legislative session to ensure that lawmakers follow through.
The fight will likely be a fierce one. Buffer strips, basically grassy areas along ditches or farmland bordering some state waters, hold stream banks in place, helping to reduce sediment and other pollutants in overland water runoff. One of Minnesota’s premiere natural resources — sediment-choked Lake Pepin — is a case study in the harm occurring downstream from land that is tilled, fertilized and crisscrossed by drain tile.
The agricultural industry has long enjoyed broad exemptions from clean-water laws. Dayton’s push will not likely be welcomed by this powerful special interest. Buffer strip advocates need to ensure that Minnesota lawmakers don’t succumb to the industry’s lobbying might or hyperbole from the excitable property-rights crowd.
The state Department of Natural Resources is just starting to work on buffer strip legislation, so key questions about what better enforcement would look like (how much would fines be, for example) can’t be answered yet. In addition to better enforcement, Dayton has called for existing laws to be clarified to help Minnesotans understand them. That’s smart. Compliance is likely lagging because the laws aren’t well known and it can be difficult to figure out which waterways they apply to.
This is a state that takes its water stewardship responsibilities seriously. The governor’s proposal on buffer strips is a logical and doable next step to protect Minnesota’s lakes, streams, fish and wildlife for future generations.