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Q and A about buffers

The buffer strip law in Minnesota has been a hot topic, but what exactly is it, why has it been so contentious and what's going on at the state and local level? Here is a guide to the controversial law.

Q. What does the buffer strip law do?

A. The buffer strip law requires landowners to establish and maintain buffers along public water tributaries and drainage ditches. This includes seeding soil to grow vegetation that cannot be harvested as crops, though the law states farmers can use the land for grazing and cut it for hay. Soil and water conservation districts must determine how much land must be used on each side of the waterways. Buffer strips are supposed to range from a minimum of 16.5 feet to an average of 50 feet, depending on the waterway and findings by district staff.

The state Department of Natural Resources created an interactive map to show where buffers should be in place and how wide the strips should be, though some tributaries are under review.

Funds are available through the state to help pay for the buffer strips.

Q. What is the intent of the law?

A. The buffer strips are meant to serve as filters to prevent agricultural pollution, such as drainage that contains fertilizer and chemicals, proponents of the bill argue. It also prevents erosion.

Q. When was the law signed and what are the deadlines?

A. The law was signed by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2015. Amendments have been made to the law since then, but the deadline for farmers to create buffer strips along public water is Nov. 1. For public ditches, the deadline is Nov. 1, 2018.

Q. Why do some support the law?

A. Environmental advocates have argued the state must do something to prevent pollution, citing state studies that show nearly 40 percent of Minnesota waters are polluted, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Q. Why do some oppose the law?

A. Opponents, particularly farmers, have argued the law is unconstitutional and a land grab and that the law is unnecessary since farming techniques have changed over the years, making them more concise and less harmful, according to media reports and letters sent to the Herald.

Q. Have farmers been complying?

A. Compliance has varied across the state, according to a preliminary map released March 13 by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. About a dozen counties are 99 to 100 percent in compliance, though most of those are in North Central Minnesota and the Arrowhead Region, where mountainous and forested lands dominate the terrain. Roughly 75 percent of the counties are at least 60 percent compliant, according to the map.

About 20 counties are 60 percent or less compliant, with four of those counties being 37 to 40 percent compliant, according to the map. The four counties include Pennington, Norman, Marshall and Nobles.

The map doesn't indicate non-compliance since more fieldwork is required to review counties.

Q. What has been happening recently legislatively and locally?

A. Some state legislators are attempting to make changes to the law, including pushing back the deadlines for compliance, though Dayton has said he would veto any changes to the law.

"To delay or weaken it is not acceptable and not negotiable," he told the Pioneer Press.

Some county commissions, including in Kittson, Marshall and Pennington counties, have signed resolutions opposing the law. Counties also have held or have set up public forums for residents to discuss the matter.

The Board of Water and Soil Resources is accepting comments on the implementation of Minnesota's buffer program. Comments can be sent via email to buffers.bwsr@state.mn.us or by mail to David Weirens, assistant director for programs and policy; Board of Water and Soil Resources; 520 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155. Comments are due May 3.

For more information on buffer strips, go to www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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