By Dave Orrick, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Laying the blame for many of the state's polluted waters squarely at the feet of agriculture, Gov. Mark Dayton on Thursday asked Minnesota farmers to "look into their souls" and support his proposal to buffer nearly every public water in the state from row crops and their associated runoff.
"You have a right to operate your land for lawful purposes, but you don't have the right to dump your runoff and create cesspools where the rest of Minnesotans wants to enjoy it and where wildlife wants to enjoy it," Dayton said, raising the rhetoric on a plan that was inspired by a summit of pheasant hunters and is now being touted as a significant way to protect water quality by reducing erosion and pollution runoff.
"Most farmers, I think, are good stewards, but there are some out there who I guess don't share that view, and what they're doing, unfortunately, is contaminating water that everybody uses, that everybody needs to use," Dayton, flanked by several members of his cabinet and Democratic lawmakers, said at a news conference designed to push back at farm groups opposing the measure.
On Thursday, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association came out publicly against the plan, joining opposition earlier in the week by the Minnesota Farmers Union and the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation.
A host of environmental and conservation groups, such as the Freshwater Society and the Friends of the Mississippi River, support it.
Later Thursday, a committee in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party-controlled Senate passed the plan. It likely faces a tougher road in the Republican-controlled House.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R- Hanska, who introduced the bill in the House, sought to distance himself from the plan Thursday, saying "Dayton's bill ... goes too far." Torkelson said he plans on changing the bill as it moves through the Legislature.
House speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, came to farmers' defense. "We believe they do a great job and we believe they are very conscientious about our environment and have employed practices in their farming to really respect our environment," Daudt said.
Dayton's plan would require a 50-foot buffer of perennial vegetation around every public water in the state, which would include rivers, streams, ditches, ponds and lakes.
Existing laws already protect nearly all lakeshores. However, laws and rules designed to protect smaller streams and drainage ditches -- via buffers of either 165 feet or 50 feet -- contain numerous exemptions, and compliance and enforcement of those rules are inconsistent.
According to estimates by the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources, 64 percent, or 44,850 miles, of streams and ditches require no buffers. Dayton's plan would convert about 125,000 acres of land currently in production as annual row crops like corn and soybeans to permanent vegetation.
Dayton's plan provides no money for farmers forced to take land out of row-crop production, but his agriculture commissioner, Dave Fredrickson, said he believed that falling commodities prices might mean it makes more sense economically for farmers to enroll those lands for federal subsidies that seek to encourage environmental stewardship.
Dayton's decision to point the finger at agriculture is bolstered by growing concern over the state's failing waters voiced by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Last week, the agency released a study of 93 streams in agriculture-heavy southwest Minnesota in the Missouri River basin. Of those, only three streams could fully support aquatic life and only one had low enough levels of E. coli bacteria to be considered safe for swimming. None passed both tests.
"It's frightening, the lack of the ability of the waters to support aquatic life and the threat to human health and human safety to be in those waters," Dayton said, adding later: "And you look at that southwest part of the state, it's not heavily industrial or large manufacturing. It's agriculture. So let's face reality and say this is agriculture runoff that is causing this deterioration."
MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine said it was impossible to predict the exact impacts of buffers along the banks of those waterways, but he said buffers would "dramatically improve" the water quality by reducing nitrogen and phosphorous runoff from farm fields.
Publicly, the farm groups aren't disputing that, but are arguing Dayton's plan is too rigid and takes rights away from farmers without compensation.