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Buffer statute travels downstream

Wells Creek winds its way through rural Goodhue County. Farmers in watershed have a long-standing reputation of being good water stewards. (photo by James Clinton)1 / 3
This buffer strip on Jon Parker's property along Wells Creek in Goodhue County complies with Minnesota’s 2015 buffer law. (Photo by James Clinton)2 / 3
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Editor's note: This is the first in a series taking a local view on issues that may arise during the 2017 Minnesota Legislature. 

Residents who lived along Lake Pepin during the 1970s and '80s might remember frequent algae blooms erupting in the water. These toxic algae blooms were the result of excess phosphorus being pumped into the Mississippi River from the metro area. Due to concerned citizen groups and stricter regulations on places such as the Pig's Eye Treatment Plant, pollution from the Twin Cities has decreased in recent decades. However, phosphorus remains a concern for the Mississippi River near Red Wing.

The metro pollution was largely point-source pollution — a contaminant whose entry-point can be clearly identified. Today, the culprit for the majority of pollution in the Mississippi River near Red Wing is known as nonpoint source pollution, contaminants that do not have a clearly defined entry-point.

RELATED: Buffering back and forth: Locals react to Minn. buffer law

Nonpoint source pollution is much harder to identify, and much more difficult to control.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one way to deal with nonpoint source pollution is to implement aquatic buffers, a boundary of natural vegetation between natural waterways and existing development.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed a buffer law in 2015, and the law has been a source of debate ever since. Some see the law as a necessary step toward enhancing water quality, while others view it as poorly designed or too burdensome on farmers and landowners.

Red Wing Public Works Deputy Director Bob Stark is pleased that the city's Wastewater Treatment Plant has been relatively effective at addressing point-source pollution, but remains concerned about future legislation.

"You can't keep clamping down on point-source pollution without addressing the majority of the problem, which is caused by nonpoint source pollution," Stark said.

However, he stopped short of wholeheartedly endorsing the buffer law.

"If the law addresses nonpoint source pollution effectively, I think it's a good idea. Still, there needs to be a financial incentive. Landowners can't be expected to forego the use of their land without some type of compensation," he said.

According to Beau Kennedy, a wetland administrator for the Goodhue County Soil and Water Conservation District, there are compensation programs available to landowners affected by the buffer law.

An existing program provides annual rental payments for land taken out of farm production, and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a collaborative effort between the federal and state government, will roll out this year.

Still Kennedy noted, "state funding tailored to help address the needs of our landowners would be appreciated."

Kennedy encourages landowners to contact the Goodhue County Soil and Water Conservation District for more information. The office phone number is 651-923-5286.

Local representatives weigh in

State Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing, agrees that landowners need direct compensation if their land is going to be used as a buffer. She also cited recent efforts by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources to "allow practices tailored to individual situations, rather than a one-size-fits-all solution" as an important step in improving the law.

"I look forward to continuing to work on refining the buffer law so that, in addition to protecting our waterways, including Lake Pepin in our region, we also respect the needs of our important agricultural sector," Haley said.

State Sen. Mike Goggin, R-Red Wing, said localized solutions are important.

"The best way to achieve clean water without placing a burden on farmers and landowners is to work through local channels. We need solutions at the local level with everyone — conservation districts, farmers and landowners — working together," he said.

John Jaschke, BWSR executive director, told Goggin during committee testimony Monday that statute provisions allow for local solutions that achieve the same goal and local jurisdiction.

"In your part of the state, one of those alternate practices can be grass waterways," he said.

"Our goal is to have all the counties elect jurisdiction," he added as testimony wrapped up.

Goggin and Haley are optimistic about working with Dayton. Haley appreciates the governor's push for cleaner water, and believes they can find a workable solution on the buffer issue.

"The governor seems open to working with us, and has shown flexibility on the issue. So far, it's been good working with him," Goggin said.

Buffer zones are expected to be a contested topic during the current legislative session.

The Republican Eagle will provide updates as the issue is addressed.