The Department of Natural Resources announced last week it had finished mapping the state’s public waters, including rivers, lakes and public ditches.
The mapping was ordered by the Legislature as a first step toward implementing Minnesota’s new waterway buffer law. By Nov. 1 next year, public waters must be bordered with perennial vegetative cover averaging 50 feet wide, and by November 2018, public ditches must also be buffered, though only by 16.5-foot-wide grass, alfalfa or similar vegetated strips.
Buffers slow and clean water that drains from farmlands and other properties into the state’s rivers, ditches and lakes.
Development and passage of the law was contentious, and planning for its implementation might be confusing. In the interview below, John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), discusses what comes next.
Q: The DNR map of public waters and public ditches released last week is interactive, meaning landowners can go online and see specifically what, if any, public waters or public ditches are on their properties. What other purposes will the map serve?
A: The map is critical, and it will show landowners what their obligations might be under the buffer law. The map also will allow Soil and Water Conservation Districts [SWCDs] to inventory waters and buffers in their respective counties. Landowners with public waters or public ditches should get in touch with their SWCD if they are interested in advice about state, federal or local financial or technical assistance that might be available to develop the buffers. Some districts might also have equipment, such as seed drills, that could be borrowed or rented to help develop a buffer.
Q: Discuss the buffer deadlines.
A: “Public’’ waters, such as lakes and rivers, must be buffered by November next year, while developing public ditch buffers isn’t required until November 2018.
Q: Are those deadlines practical?
A: I think they are.
Q: Is there a penalty for noncompliance?
A: Yes. A fine of $500 can be levied. Don’t misunderstand, a landowner can’t just pay $500 and not develop a buffer. Theoretically, at least, the fine could be levied more than once. But we don’t expect that to happen. We think compliance rates will be high. In some counties, compliance already is nearly 100 percent.
Q: What are some funding sources that can be tapped to help landowners?
A: A current option that may provide the most benefit is CRP [Conservation Reserve Program]. If you’re a landowner with a piece of property associated with a riparian area that has a cropping history, the USDA’s CRP program could provide cash on a 10- or 15-year contract. Additionally, Soil and Water Conservation Districts in some instances have state money available.
We’re also working with USDA on a cooperative federal CREP [Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program] funding source. Gov. [Mark] Dayton submitted a proposal to USDA in December that would combine state and federal money to get permanent protection of buffers and also accomplish wetland restorations and protect municipal wells. If the Legislature doesn’t return in special session and pass the governor’s bonding bill, which includes a portion of the state’s matching money for this initiative, we can still get started with money from the Outdoor Heritage Fund and the Clean Water Fund [both established under the Legacy Act approved by voters in 2008], together with some recently designated LCCMR [lottery] money to implement the five-year program. It’s being worked on now. The money ultimately would be targeted to restore, and manage, environmentally sensitive areas under the state’s RIM [Re-Invest in Minnesota] program.
Q: Though lakes are included in the law’s definition of public waters, most lakeshore owners needn’t worry about the law affecting them because “permanent vegetative cover’’ includes grass among other vegetation that typically borders lakes, correct?
A: Yes, but lakeshore owners should do all they can to manage their property to avoid removing natural vegetation or overusing fertilizer or herbicides.
Q: Of all public waters and ditches in the state the law applies to, what percentages remain to be covered?
A: We don’t have exact data on that. We’ll know more after SWCDs inventory their areas using the DNR map. But we believe about 90 percent of public waters already are buffered to some degree. We estimate that only about 20 percent of public ditches have a 1-rod buffer, however. We will be able to fine-tune our understanding of needed buffers once the SWCD inventories are completed.
Q: Critics of the buffer law say it won’t be effective along some, and perhaps many, ditches, because farmland drain tile pipes empty into the ditches beneath the land surface — thus the discharges wouldn’t be slowed, cleansed or stopped by a buffer.
A: The law allows for alternatives to conventional buffers to be used in these and other circumstances. Every site is different — its topography, soil type, cropping systems and so forth. A circular buffer around surface intakes to treat water before it gets to a ditch or river is one option, for instance.
Q: Let’s use an example of a farmer who has a mile-long river through her property that needs 50-foot-average buffers on each side. Admittedly, this is an exaggerated example, because relatively few landowners have such extensive waterways without some buffer already in place. But for discussion, how much cropping land would be lost by converting that land to buffers?
A: Fifty-foot buffers on both sides of a mile-long river would amount to a little over 12 acres.
Q: How about a mile-long ditch requiring 16.5-foot buffers on both sides?
A: 3.3 acres.
Q: Regarding ditch buffers, the law allows the local ditching authorities to retroactively pay landowners for establishing a ditch buffer, correct?
A: Yes. If it’s a public drainage system, the local ditch authority can assess the buffer establishment cost to all who benefit by the ditch, and use the assessments to reimburse the landowner who established the buffer.
Q: A total of $10 million per year to cover compliance and related implementation costs of the buffer law was in the tax bill that Gov. Dayton vetoed for other reasons. Unless the Legislature reconvenes in special session, that money will be lost for this year.
A: Yes, the appropriation would have been for the years ahead, so it can be reconsidered in an upcoming legislative session before the compliance measures take effect. We do have a $5 million, two-year start-up allotment being used that was appropriated in 2015 to get the mapping work done and cover the work being done by Soil and Water Conservation Districts to help landowners understand how to meet expectations of the law. The tax bill allotment was specifically for future compliance work.
Q: March 31, 2017, is the deadline for local authorities to elect whether they will carry out the compliance aspects of the buffer law. If they don’t, the responsibility falls to your agency, BWSR.
A: Yes. We expect most local authorities will chose to take on compliance, and we are working closely with them to determine how best to integrate that work with their existing responsibilities. But we’ll have to wait and see.
Q: Can compliance be assured by looking at maps? Or will on-site inspections be required?
A: Both can work. But the on-site option will be helpful.
Q: Assuming widespread compliance with the buffer law, will the state’s waters be cleaner over time?
A: Absolutely. And to confirm it, we, along with other state agencies, will monitor water quality changes. But remember, buffers are only one tool among many that can be used for water and sediment control. Other, voluntary options can make further improvements, such as wetland restorations. SWDCs also have information on these and other conservation practices.