Republicans still want buffer law changes, but Dayton won't bend

A better-than-required buffer in Otter Tail County
This buffer around a lake in Otter Tail County is 120 feet wide, more than double the required 50-foot strip of permanent vegetation.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News file

A political confrontation is shaping up over the Minnesota buffer law designed to improve water quality.

On one side are Republican lawmakers who want to change the law and delay implementation. On the other, Gov. Mark Dayton, who says the issue isn't negotiable.

"This is a very, very contentious issue in rural Minnesota," said state Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. "Up in the Red River Valley, the area that I represent, there is a lot of angst about it."

The buffer law, originally passed in 2015 and set to take effect this November, requires 50-foot strips of grass and other perennial plants on farmland along waterways to filter fertilizer and soil runoff that is a significant cause of diminished water quality in Minnesota.

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Fabian said several northern Minnesota counties are on record opposing the buffer law in its current form.

One legislative proposal that concerns state officials and environmental groups says that unless 100 percent of the cost of establishing buffers is covered by state or federal funding, a landowner wouldn't need to comply with the law.

A variety of funding options are available for farmers, but full funding isn't always possible, said John Jaschke, executive director of the State Board of Water and Soil Resources. "To make something 100-percent conditional on 100-percent financing, I think is going quite a ways too far."

Environmental groups agree.

"We believe it would essentially be a sideways repeal," said Mark Ten Eyck, green drainage coordinator for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Ten Eyck believes full public funding of buffers would set agriculture apart from other land uses.

"Everyone else pays. Businesses, real estate developers, municipalities, home owners, they all foot some or all of the bill for water-quality control, and we think agriculture should be no exception," Ten Eyck said.

Another proposal would limit the streams where a 50-foot buffer is required. Ten Eyck said that would reduce protection on an estimated 24,000 miles of waterways, and limit pollution control for more than 200,000 acres of land.

Jaschke said many of the legislative changes are unnecessary because landowner and county concerns can be addressed without changing the law.

Next week, the agency will release what Jaschke is calling a six-pack of conservation practices that can be alternatives to a buffer in certain situations.

"We expect that will help a great deal where landowners are saying the buffer isn't going to do what it should be doing to treat water quality but something else could do equal or better and perhaps use less of the land to do that," he said.

One proposal everyone seems to agree on is a $10 million appropriation to help counties cover the cost of implementing the buffer law. But there is disagreement about whether that money should come from the state's clean water legacy fund, or the general fund.

Dayton said he's already compromised by excluding private ditches from the current law.

While the law may need some tweaking after it's implemented this fall, the governor said Wednesday any changes that weaken or delay the law are unreasonable.

"Buffers is not negotiable, not for discussion," he said. "I will veto any bill that has any gutting or delay in the buffer."

If the governor is unwilling to bend, Fabian said, "this is going to be an explosive issue."

"I'm certainly hopeful there is something we can negotiate," he said. "There is going to be a significant number of farmers who are going to thumb their nose at the law and 'because you didn't listen to my concerns and because you didn't think anything I had to say was legitimate, I'm not going to do this.'"

Counties are weighing whether they will take responsibility for implementing the buffer law this fall or allow the state to oversee the program. State officials are telling counties that despite a March deadline to make that decision they can hold off until after the legislature completes its work.