Jason Garms breezed through his presentation on Gov. Mark Dayton’s buffer initiative Wednesday at the Waseca County Farm Forum, and then the discussion took off in earnest.
Garms, Agricultural Program Liaison for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and a corn and soybean farmer, explained much of the thinking that went into the buffer initiative, including stakeholder meetings and surveys, but that didn’t stop the flood of questions.
Garms referenced the lack of consistency from one county to another to enforce current buffer requirements of shoreland rules (50-foot requirement) and drainage laws (16.5 feet or one rod). He also made mention of a recent Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study, which cites that nearly 93 percent of the lakes and streams in southwestern Minnesota are unswimmable or unfishable.
“Currently, 64 percent of Minnesota’s watercourses are not subject to buffer requirements,” Garms said.
During the Q&A portion of his discussion, Garms elaborated, saying that right now under current buffer requirements, a waterway could be required to have 50-foot buffers, 16.5-foot buffers or no buffers.
One question on everyone’s minds was how Dayton came up with the number of 50-feet.
“You’re certainly not the first person to ask why 50, why a blanket 50 everywhere,” Garms told the attendee. “Because really if you use engineered specs for your field, there will be some more like 33 and there will be some that’ll be 55. There will be varying widths depending on the situation. Fifty really is more or less the universal number. If you look at the average across most landscapes, 50 tends to be the number, or something like that.
Garms said under the current proposal, there is the option to apply for an alternate practice, which would mean going into an NRCS office and figuring out what the specs are for the that location and setting the buffer based off those specs.
Garms also said the current legislation states that if you are already enrolled in CRP land, it is assumed that the CRP land has already been assessed and buffer requirements have been made.
“So if you have a 33-foot CRP,” Garms said, “you’re good.”
Another common question attendees posed to Garms was who or what motivated Dayton to propose the buffer initiative. Was it a habitat issue? Or was it a clean water issue?
Garms said it has been confusing for those on the outside looking in on the governor’s buffer initiative.
“This isn’t something the governor just suddenly thought was a priority announcement,” Garms said. “He’s been hearing about this for some time. There was just an opportunity at the DNR Round Tables to make an introduction and announces this. So being that it was at the DNR Round Tables that makes it really have that wildlife habitat sort of flavor to it.
Garms said that the pheasant summit, which received a fair amount of press, also sparked the idea that the buffer initiative was about wildlife habitat.
“I think for those reasons, it was introduced woundingly that this was a best-for-habitat sort of thing,” he said. “My friends and colleagues at Pheasants Forever will be the first to tell you that this should move forward as a separate initiative. This is a water quality initiative, and we fully understand that everything else is going to come along with this initiative. This is a water quality thing, and that’s what Minnesotan’s are asking for.”
Bills available online
“Again, these bills the way they are written represents the governor’s interest and where he was a few months ago. But as most of you realize, when a bill like this is introduced to legislators, it will go through a number of committees and it will go through a number of hearings, this bill is going to be taken apart and put back together again, and your guess is as good as mine as to where it will end. The governor is very serious and interested in seeing this bill be very successful.”
Garms said Dayton is prepared for a less-than-favorable resolve to the buffer legislation.
“Even in light of the fact that the bill itself may not be entirely successful, the governor will still continue to have interest in water quality and water quality initiatives and trying to move the needle.”
Inside the initiative
Garms said that Dayton’s charge to state agencies was:
- 50 feet of permanent vegetation on Minnesota waters
- Make the legislation simple to understand and implement
- DNR will have oversight of buffer enforcement
Of the framework of the buffer initiative, Garms said the following would be required of landowners:
- 50 feet of perennial vegetation
- Landowners use buffer in any way they want, as long as vegetation is maintained
- If a 50-foot buffer will not protect water quality, landowners can seek approval for an alternate practice
- Exceptions provided for roads, buildings, water access sites and municipalities compliant with sewer and storm water laws.
On placement of required buffers, Garms said all perennial waters statewide would be affected. Perennial water is defined as public waters and other watercourses with a defined bed and bank, and have water flowing during the majority of the growing season in most years.
Garms said the DNR will establish and maintain an inventory map of each county that shows waters subject to the buffer requirement.
The proposed timeline for landowners to become complaint with buffers under the current plan would be Sept. 1, 2016. Landowners waiting on program assistance can receive a waiver up to Sept. 1, 2017. For noncompliance, the DNR may issue an order requiring violations be corrected and may assess penalties.