Issues remain as buffers move from Capitol to cropland after new requirements passed

Published 10:10 am Monday, September 28, 2015

ST. PAUL — State officials are moving to implement new requirements for setbacks between cropland and waterways passed by the Legislature this year, but concern and confusion among farmers and lawmakers surrounding the new law makes it clear — the buffer battle in Minnesota isn’t over.

Agricultural groups spent months negotiating with Gov. Mark Dayton on his controversial call to boost water quality by installing buffer strips along Minnesota waterways. They eventually passed a scaled-down compromise. The first of those buffers, on public waterways, are required by November of 2017, with smaller strips along public drainage systems coming the following year.

State officials say they’re still working to provide farmers and property owners clear guidance about where they’ll be required to install the grassland zones to filter harmful runoff. That information vacuum — and what little guidance they’ve received — has some lawmakers and farmers worried the state may grab up more land than they bargained for to get the buffer treatment.

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“I really want this to be successful, but the only way to be successful is if we get good cooperation,” said Republican Rep. Paul Torkelson, a farmer who played a key role in the bill’s negotiations. “We’re not going to get that cooperation if we break our word.”

The state’s Department of Natural Resources and other regulatory bodies are starting to work their way through the law and the state’s massive network of lakes, rivers, streams and drainage systems. The law generally requires 50-foot buffers along public waterways and 16 1/2-foot strips along public ditches.

The DNR is working on maps to show what land will be subject to the law, agricultural liaison Jason Garms said. But after a review process and public comment period, the maps won’t be complete until next summer.

“When you don’t have a map out there, it kind of creates a void. We know we need to start getting some information out there,” Garms said.

In the meantime, Torkelson and others are concerned that the state may extend the smaller drainage system buffer requirements to farmers’ privately owned ditches based on some guidance from officials at the state’s Board of Water and Soil Resources. It hinges on part of the new law that extends the buffer requirement to “ditches within the benefited area of public drainage systems.”

John Jaschke, the board’s executive director, said it’s too early to say what private ditches might be included.

“It’s going to be case by case, ditch by ditch, county by county,” he said. “It’s just too early to know what that distinction is going to be. Each one of them is going to be different.”

Agricultural groups never meant to include private ditches in the final deal with Dayton, said Anna Boroff, public policy director of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. She deemed the confusion a downside of a bill quickly reached in the waning hours of legislative session — and one that may require the Legislature to refine the law next year.

“There are too many questions that could lead to too many different answers. It’s going to have to be clarified,” said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

Sen. Torrey Westrom has heard the same worries from farmers and county officials in his farm-heavy western Minnesota district. Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said he’s warned state regulators not to be “overzealous” in their interpretation of the law.

“It’s going to explode what was a tenuous situation to begin with,” he said.