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

Minnesota's buffer law states that all "public waters" and "public drainage ditches" need to have a natural buffer separating cultivated land and the adjacent waterway or ditch by November. Last year, the Department of Natural Resources published an online map that identifies where buffers need to be installed.

Prior to the 2015 law, many counties had similar ordinances on the books but compliance and uniformity remained an issue.

"The existing laws led to inconsistencies and a perceived inequity among landowners. The new law provides a consistent framework," said Tom Gile, the Buffer and Soil Erosion Program coordinator for the Goodhue County Board of Water and Soil Resources.

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"Buffers are typically a good, standard practice being utilized by a lot of agricultural producers across the state and can provide a good backbone for water quality," Gile said.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Keith Allen, a Goodhue County resident and member of the Minnesota Farm Bureau Board of Directors, identified several issues the farming community has with the law. While he had other concerns as well, Allen cited issues with the online map and a perceived lack of local control as key points of contention.

"The map showing where the buffers should be implemented needs to be accurate. In several places, including Goodhue County, there have been several private ditches labeled as public. Farmers need to be involved in creating the map," Allen said.

Gile wholeheartedly agrees that farmers should be involved in the mapping process. He encourages farmers and landowners to work with their local Soil and Water Conservation District to voice their concerns.

Gile pointed out that both public ditches and public waters are included in the law. Even if a ditch is not necessarily public, but falls within a public water, it needs to be mapped.

Allen acknowledged that compliance was an issue with the existing county rules, but does not see that as a reason to implement a statewide statute. He called for increased funding and support for county soil and water conservation districts, so that they can properly enforce the rules already in place.

"These existing rules were created with the unique topography of each Minnesota region in mind. We're all for conservation, but it needs to be a regionally applied practice," Allen said.

According to Gile, the current state law does allow for local flexibility. Buffers can range from 30 to 50 feet in width, and his office is working on a series of documents that outline alternative practices landowners can implement if they do not want to create a buffer zone. He said concerned landowners can monitor for more information.

Beau Kennedy, a wetland administrator with the Goodhue County Soil and Water Conservation District, expressed optimism about the law and local land stewardship.

"Buffers are a good step to enhancing the water quality in Goodhue County. Many landowners here are already good stewards of the land and are doing what they can to protect water quality. We hope that continues and the enforcement piece of the new law won't be necessary in our county," he said.

While there are diverse opinions on the law, it seemed there was consensus around two things: the importance of water quality and local involvement.

Allen stressed that, "as farmers, it's all about passing our land down to the next generation better than we found it." Gile concluded, "this law will work best if it's enforced locally."