Gov. Mark Dayton stunned but delighted Minnesota's leading conservationists Friday by announcing that he'll push for a new law this legislative session that would require every lake and river in the state to be buffered by a wide strip of natural land, a significant step toward protecting both water and wildlife.

"I recognize this will not be well received by some private landowners," Dayton said Friday to a packed room at the Department of Natural Resources' annual meeting for conservationists. "The land may be yours, but the water belongs to all of us."

Minnesota has required buffer strips on farmland for years, the only state in the country to do so, but the law is often not enforced. Demand for enforcement has risen in recent months, from hunters, anglers, beekeepers and environmentalists worried about precipitous declines in wildlife and rising agricultural pollution in the southern half of the state.

Dayton's proposal, however, would go well beyond the current law, and if it passes it would represent a major shift in environmental policy that environmentalists have wanted for years. Farmers and other land owners are largely immune from water pollution laws related to runoff — the buffer law is one of the very few on the books.

While no details have been worked out, Dayton said that, in general, he wants a rule that would be consistent across all bodies of water — raising the question of whether it would also apply to owners of lake homes and businesses and others who own property along water. Unlike the current law, which is enforced by counties, the governor wants the DNR to take on responsibility for the proposed measure in order to make it consistent. And he said he wants penalties for land owners who don't comply, which would help provide the funds needed for the program.

"Halfhearted measures produce halfhearted outcomes," he said. "Its simplicity is also its strength."

Dayton will appoint a task force to figure out the language, with the goal of signing it into law by the end of the current legislative session, he said.

A 50-foot-wide buffer strip around all the state's major waterways would create about 200 square miles of natural habitat in the most ecologically critical areas. Such natural plantings are considered the first step in protecting water from runoff like soil, nitrogen and phosphorus, which are the most common water pollutants in Minnesota. They would also create corridors that would allow wildlife to move, give them access to water, and improve conditions for fish and other aquatic life as well.

Reaction to the idea

Dayton and others said the proposal would encounter resistance at the Legislature, but on Friday there appeared to be at least some bipartisan support for the idea in principle. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said he would favor such a law.

"I'm happy he laid it out in such a way that we could begin a discussion," McNamara said. "But I'd like a program that's flexible."

Conservationists said they were surprised and pleased that Dayton proposed what they described as a bold step.

"It's very significant that the governor has decided to really take a leadership role," said Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, who has advocated for tougher rules for agriculture to protect the state's great rivers. "Agriculture and water has long been a third rail."

Agricultural interests were more muted in their response. Bruce Peterson, a Northfield farmer and president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said in a statement that "we look forward to reviewing Gov. Dayton's buffer proposal when more details are made available."

Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson has said that farmers and other land owners should be encouraged to protect water quality voluntarily, rather than through regulation. Late on Friday he said that while he continues to believe that the best strategy for farmers is incentive-based, he recognizes that the state's law need to be reformed and simplified. "Today, Governor Dayton took a bold step to begin that process, and I support the governor's efforts," he said.

While conservation groups have complained for years that local governments do not enforce the state's law, which requires a 50-foot buffer along lakes, streams and rivers and a 16-foot buffer along many ditches, the degree of noncompliance became starkly evident last year. The Environmental Working Group, a national conservation nonprofit, published maps showing precisely how much was missing in the southern third of the state. It found that there was wide variability from county to county but that, on average, four-fifths of the cropland that bordered water was missing at least some of the legally required buffers.

The issue became a priority for state wildlife leaders and Dayton in December when they held a pheasant summit to devise plans to stop the dramatic decline in the game bird's numbers. One of the most popular recommendations from the 300 attendees was enforcement of the existing state buffer law.

Still, the governor's proposal, which he laid out in a pointed speech on Friday, was unexpected. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he became aware of it only recently.