Controversial Buffer Strip Law Deadline Approaches

Oct 27, 2017  | 7 min  | Ep4310

Harvest time brings a frenetic pace as producers know winter is coming.  Loyal viewers of this program have even adjusted their viewing habits while in the field.

And looming government deadlines also wait for no one, as is the case in the land of 10,000 lakes.

Earlier this month the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said “overall, the Minnesota River is unhealthy.”

The declaration bolstered 2015 state legislative action on water quality - set to take effect next week.

Colleen Bradford Krantz has our Cover Story.

Minnesota farmers face a deadline this week over a controversial law requiring buffer strips to be planted along most rivers, streams and lakes as part of a statewide effort to improve water quality.

In advance of the Nov. 1 deadline, state officials claim a 94 percent compliance rate – a number partially based on farmers’ self-reporting. However, some farmers are frustrated that the law fails to include a tax break, or other long-term compensation, for acres lost planting the required 50-foot grass strips between farm fields and public waterways.

Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District official Ben Ruley is among the local authorities hearing plenty from affected landowners since the measure was signed into law in 2015.

Ben Ruley, Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District: “A number of them see the environmental benefits of doing so. There was a lot of landowners that already had the buffers installed for various reasons. Some because they couldn't farm that close and some because they did see the benefit of keeping the manure out of the water in their area. And it has ranged up to people coming in the office and yelling at me for a half an hour.”

Tim Macik, Lake Lillian, Minn.: “I have no plans of complying with giving away my property to the state of Minnesota for free. If they pay me for this land, for taking this property, that’s fine.”

Tim Macik raises corn, soybeans, peas and sugar beets in central Minnesota, and has calculated that he would have to remove 5 acres from production if he widened his buffer strips as required.

The rules only apply to waterways marked on state public water inventory maps. The new law does affect some drainage ditches classified as taxpayer supported. Buffer strips required along those ditches would need to be 16½ feet wide rather than 50 feet, and have to be in place by November 2018.

Farmers can request an extension before next week’s deadline, giving them until July 1 to either put the 50-foot barriers in place, or allow them to demonstrate they are protecting the water using another approach. Fines will be imposed after 11 months of non-compliance. Although the penalties could vary, some counties may impose fines of $100 a month for the first six months, and $500 for every month thereafter.

Ben Ruley, Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District: “Those expressing displeasure feel it’s a taking of their land, and I can understand that. For years and years, they have been farming that and it’s part of their operation...But for what I do at the Soil and Water office, it’s about trying to protect our resources and it’s about finding that balance.”

Tim Macik, Lake Lillian, Minn.: “’If they want a wider road, they pay you for it. You could say it’s for the public good, but they pay you…Now, this is very similar to that; you are taking away land use of the property.”

Tom Gregory, who has a dairy farm near Kimball, Minnesota, says he is encouraged that the state is working to ensure wider buffer strips are in place.

Tom Gregory, Mill Creek Dairy, Kimball, Minn.: “So many farm right up to these waterways and it’s not that difficult to leave a grass strip. We’ve been doing that since we’ve been here. We just naturally always did it so we don’t have manure runoff when we have these heavy rains going into the creek.”

Gregory, who also is on the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District board, estimated he only had to add another acre of buffer strips to bring his 400-acre grain and dairy operation into compliance. The measures may have less impact on livestock producers like Gregory as the buffer strips can be grazed or used for making hay.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton acknowledged in September the buffer strip legislation he proposed would have been equitable had it included property tax breaks for landowners who could show a resulting financial loss.

Gov. Mark Dayton, D-Minnesota: “There are farmers who would like to be more forthcoming and who really are just strapped economically so we need to find ways to reduce those costs as well as increase incentives for people to do what is in their best interest but also in best interest of their friends and neighbors.”

Dave Frederickson, Minnesota Ag Commissioner: “The talk has been: why are you looking at agriculture as the biggest culprit? And my answer is because there are 26 million acres of productive farmland in this state. And the other issue is: why don’t we look at metro Minnesota? And I say: you should abide by the same with lawns and golf courses.”

Neighboring states like South Dakota addressed this problem by adopting a new buffer strip law that is both voluntary and includes property tax relief. Without such a financial carrot available in the Gopher State, Minnesota farmers and officials say a lawsuit is likely sometime late next year.

State legislators in St. Paul did amend the law in 2016 to allow some alternative practices after recognizing buffer strips are only one answer for ensuring clean water. Some drainage ditches in Minnesota, for example, have raised berms bordering them, preventing sediment from flowing directly from farm fields into the water.

Macik is doubtful comparable regulatory measures will ever be enacted in an urban setting.

Tim Macik, producer, Lake Lillian, Minn.: “Just imagine if in the city, they came along and said they want a 15-foot buffer along the street. You can’t mow it. Oh, and don’t have a car drive through that, or a sidewalk. Wouldn’t people get a little upset about that? (cut) If you let the state of Minnesota do this, they could do that too.”

Gov. Mark Dayton, D-Minnesota: “It’s controversial. But anytime you tell people that they need to do something, people don’t like that, especially coming from somebody in St. Paul. But that’s my job: my job is to take the lead and I think we’ve raised the visibility of the buffers, we've raised the visibility of water quality. And now we are saying it needs to be an ethic. It can't be just rules and regulations. It has got to be an ethic that everybody subscribes to that says we each have a responsibility, a role in making water better or making it worse.”

By Colleen 

Bradford Krantz,

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