Many groups on both sides of the argument have been watching closely after Gov. Mark Dayton announced his buffer plan at the Department of Natural Resources Round-table in mid-January. The proposal stated that Gov. Dayton wanted a 50-foot buffer on all waters to create 125,000 acres of additional habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.
Since his announcement, a series of stakeholder meetings and discussions were held on the proposed legislation to accomplish this goal. The purpose for the buffer in those discussions shifted from habitat to the benefits of buffers for water quality.
“A great deal of the discussions regarding buffers has focused on widespread non-compliance and lack of required buffers,” said Joe Smentek, Director of Environmental Affairs and an environmental attorney for Minnesota Soybean. “The articles and posts by environmental groups consistently rely on anecdotal evidence and no official report from any agency on the compliance rates with current law.”
According to Smentek, most groups do not understand the current buffer rule and the exemptions to that rule. There is also a lack of understanding on what bodies of water require buffers.
“The current protected waters maps are woefully inadequate,” he said. “And not every ditch is protected water. Therefore, there is a patchwork of 50 foot, 16.5 foot and 0 foot buffers required across the state.”
Kirby Hettver, who farms near DeGraff, Minn., and sits on the Minnesota Agriculture Water Certification Program Board says it is difficult to make a judgement on the current buffer proposal.
“I question whether it was a habitat initiative,” he said. “Was it a water quality initiative? At what point did they think about the individual landowner and ask if it was right for them?”
Even accomplished media outlets are misinformed in their reporting of the required buffers. On March 6, The Pioneer Press published “Mark Dayton’s water-protection plan ready for action at the Capitol.” The lead picture for the article, photographed by the article’s writer, David Orrick, shows an unidentified body of water with the caption, “This stream in southern Minnesota is among many that lack the required 50-foot natural buffer strip required by state law. The leading demand from the state’s first Pheasant Summit convened Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, is to enforce such laws, which are intended to protect water from farm runoff.”
Asked to identify the stream in the picture, Orrick responded via email that he couldn’t say for sure which stream was in the photograph.
“Without knowing what stream we are looking at there is no way to know if that stream needs a 50-foot buffer or if it is a public ditch that has not been redetermined and therefore has no legally required buffer,” Smentek said.
Smentek said that without intimate knowledge of whether or not the land is enrolled in an approved conservation plan under the rule you cannot say definitively what buffer is required on any stream in Minnesota.
Franklin farmer and Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council Director Pat Sullivan said the buffer proposal is complicated.
“We live out here in greater Minnesota,” Sullivan said. “We hunt the pheasants that live out here and drink the water out here. We want wildlife and we want clean water. We need efforts that are based on sound science that will help us reach these goals.”
A look at the bill
Late last week the proposed language of the long awaited buffer bill was released. Representative Paul Torkelson and Senator John Marty are the bill’s authors in the House and Senate.
The bill calls for a 50-foot buffer on all “perennial waters” defined in the bill. Environmental groups are calling this bill a victory for pheasants, a non-native species, and pollinators that will benefit from new habitat. Smentek said they are also touting the water quality benefits, however, there is no hard data behind this proposal. There is no indication that 50 feet would meet the state’s water quality goals.
In some areas, 50 feet may be the right answer, he said. In many more areas of the state it may be too much or even not enough to protect water quality. There are large technical manuals that can be used to indentify precipitation, slope and size of fields to determine the most beneficial buffer. As far as habitat benefits are concerned, Smentek said there are none in this current bill.
“The only requirement of the buffer law is that the buffer be maintained in perennial vegetation,” he said. “If a landowner wanted to maintain the buffer like a putting green, nothing in this bill stops that. Landowners can mow, hay, graze, or in general use their land however they see fit as long as there is perennial vegetation. Mowed grass doesn’t provide habitat.”
Smentek said what is ultimately needed is more information to make informed decisions.
“More work is needed to craft a meaningful buffer bill for Minnesota,” he said. “Environmental groups and farmers want the same thing at the end of the day when it comes to water quality. Farmers want their nutrient inputs in their crop and not in the Gulf of Mexico.”