The struggle over clean water and runoff pollution in Otter Tail County often starts with a picture.
Technicians with the West Otter Tail Soil and Water Conservation District scan high-resolution aerial photos, looking for parcels where farmland rolls up illegally next to a public lake or stream.
Farmers are supposed to keep a 50-foot buffer between cropland and water, although it's rarely enforced. When Gov. Mark Dayton recently pushed for tougher state enforcement, farm groups pushed back, calling his plan too costly and unworkable.
In Otter Tail County, however, officials are trying a local, low-key approach. They're analyzing the aerial photos to identify problems, then reaching out to landowners with guidance on how to meet the local ordinance, which also calls for 50-foot buffers.
Getting complete buy-in is a daunting task in a county with 4,618 miles of shoreline — nearly the length of the California and Oregon ocean shorelines combined.
In Otter Tail and other counties, though, there's evidence that a less confrontational approach can work. In three Otter Tail townships reviewed so far, 40 percent of landowners responded to a first letter telling them their shoreland needs buffers.
"Even though it's an existing ordinance, most landowners don't realize it's out there," said Brad Mergens, the conservation district's manager who must carry out the buffer enforcement effort approved by the county board last year. "Our goal is to be flexible. We'll go on site with every landowner and work with them."
Buffers are strips of grass designed to help filter runoff that can affect water quality. Nearly two dozen counties are taking action to enforce existing buffer laws.
The 50-foot buffer rule has been on the Otter Tail county books since 1992. But inspectors busy with other shoreland rules around heavily developed lakes haven't done much to enforce it.
Dayton took on the issue earlier this year arguing that pollution runoff from farms has made it unfit to swim or fish in many lakes and streams in Minnesota farm country.
The county's renewed focus on buffers is no heavy handed crackdown, Mergens said.
The county set up specific guidelines for identifying areas that need buffers. After an area that needs buffers is identified, technicians meet with landowners, measure the area and provide information about government programs that pay landowners to install the buffer strips.
Landowners who don't respond to a first letter will get a second and then a third. The county will ask a judge to order compliance with the buffer law only if landowners don't respond by the end of the five-year project.
It's a sensitive subject and the conservation district is going to great lengths to ensure the process is fair and equitable, said Casey Gwost, one of two people working full time on the project thanks to a $290,000 grant from the state Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment.
The sense of fair play by local officials is important in getting voluntary compliance, said Tim Koehler, a senior programs adviser for the state Board of Water and Soil Resources.
The board recently reviewed programs in six rural counties — Blue Earth, Dakota, Dodge, Grant, Olmsted, and Otter Tail — and found a local focus appears to be a key to success.
"Once you have local people working with local producers and providing them the information and providing them the incentives, we're getting nearly 100 percent compliance," Koehler said.
He points to Grant County, just south of Otter Tail, as a good example of the voluntary approach.
The county's focused on buffers since the late 1990s and reached a compliance rate of more than 95 percent without taking a single case to court, said Joe Montonye, manager of the Grant County Soil and Water Conservation District.
He says more than 18,000 acres of land are now in buffers and in some areas the county can point to measurable water quality improvements as a result.
Grant County not only enforces the shoreland ordinance on buffers, but aggressively encourages farmers to plant buffer strips on streams and wetlands not protected by the shoreland rules.
Koehler says the challenge is that shoreland ordinances only cover about one-third of water in the state's agricultural areas. Smaller ditches, streams and wetlands often don't fall under the shoreland rules, although the rules can vary from county to county.
The success of county buffer programs, he added, can only help build awareness and momentum to do more.
Looking through some of the ground level images of Otter Tail County, it's clear quickly why officials worry about buffers.
"There are some pretty obvious cases in Otter Tail County," technician Aaron Larsen said. "I've got pictures here of banks falling in," he said while shuffling through a handful of photos showing fields tilled to the edge of crumbling stream banks and windblown dirt drifting into lakes.
"If we can make it a success in Otter Tail County when we got the most water bodies of any county in the United States," he added, "it should be a breeze for any other county in Minnesota."