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Progress on buffer law

Buffer strips are designed to protect water by filtering out phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment.

Implementation of Minnesota's new buffer law is under way, and state conservation leaders say that landowners around the state are making good progress ahead of the first compliance date.

With seven months to go until the Nov. 1, 2017, deadline, 64 of Minnesota's 87 counties are 60 to 100 percent in compliance with the buffer law.

In both Douglas and Todd counties, between 81 and 98 percent of the land parcels are in compliance. Only 12 counties in the state had a higher compliance level — 99 to 100 percent.

The preliminary estimates were conducted by soil and water conservation districts based on parcel reviews via aerial/satellite imagery.

Last week, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources released another set of tools to help soil and water conservation districts and landowners identify alternative options to buffers.

The Common Alternative Practices guidance provides water quality solutions for common situations where practices other than buffers may make sense.

Under the law, landowners can use alternative practices with equivalent water quality benefits to buffers.

Conservation districts have the authority to validate these practices and are working to partner and support landowners to find the best solutions for their land. The role of the state board is to provide program guidance and support and ensure local governments are consistent and working with landowners.

"Minnesota's buffer law is designed to be flexible while delivering improved water quality benefits for future generations," said John Jaschke, director of the state board. "Around the state, there are already examples of landowners and SWCDs working together to achieve those results using something other than a buffer. The law's flexibility enables Minnesota landowners to find a solution that works for them and their land."

Staff from the state board met with more than 15 stakeholder groups around Minnesota to develop the practices, including landowners, conservation districts, environmental and agricultural groups.

"The large volume of legislative deliberation during the previous two sessions wisely provided for alternatives to a one-size-fits-all buffer," Freshwater Society Director Steve Woods said. "Landowners who have yet to come into compliance will be able to do so more easily and produce greater water quality benefits when they tailor practices to synch with their current operations."

The Common Alternative Practices offers six options for landowners and conservation districts, including:

1. Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program.

2. USDA Practice Standard Filter Strip.

3. Grassed Waterway on Public Waters.

4. Negative Slope on Public Ditches.

5. Negative Slope on Public Waters.

6. Buffer plus Conservation Tillage.

"Minnesota farmers care about being good stewards of the land," said Gary Wertish, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. "These alternative practices give them the chance to implement options that make sense both for the environment and for their farm."

Alternative practices are not limited to the six options in the guidance. Other combinations of practices, based in the Natural Resources Conservation Service Field Office Technical Guide, can be developed in partnership with conservation districts.

In addition, the state board will consider additional alternative practices to provide more options for conservation districts and landowners to develop solutions to fit their needs in the coming months.

Governor Mark Dayton signed bipartisan legislation in 2015 to establish Minnesota's water quality buffer initiative. The effort is designed to reduce phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment from entering Minnesota's lakes and streams to improve water quality statewide.

After receiving additional feedback from farmers and landowners across Minnesota, Dayton signed another bipartisan bill into law in 2016, making changes to the program to provide more flexibility and clarity.

With more than 40 percent of the state's waters polluted or impaired, state conservation leaders say the need for this initiative is clear. Nov. 1 is the deadline for public waters to have buffers in place.

For more information

More information on the buffer program, including more detailed information on alternative practices and the variety of technical and financial assistance available to help landowners with implementation, can be found at the website www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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