Minnesota Counties Want Delay in Implementing Buffer Law

January 3, 2017 05:02 PM

Minnesota county officials want to delay a law designed to prevent agricultural runoff from polluting lakes and streams.

While there is wide support for the concept of buffers, county officials contend there is confusion and questions about the law.

The buffer program, a signature issue for Gov. Mark Dayton last legislative session, is set to take effect in November. The idea is that 50-foot strips of permanent vegetation will filter runoff — mostly soil, fertilizer and chemicals from farm fields — before it reaches rivers and lakes.

Roseau County Commissioner Jack Swanson, the past president of the Association of Minnesota Counties, said a key concern among county officials is who will pay to implement and enforce the measure, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.

The Legislature included $10 million in the tax bill to help counties cover the cost, but Dayton vetoed the bill, leaving the program unfunded.

"What I'm hearing from counties, especially in the north, is if the money's not there, the county has no interest in taking on that enforcement role," Swanson said. "We have to make that decision by the end of March and it seems unlikely there will be a tax bill ready by that point."

If counties choose to not enforce the buffer law, that responsibility would fall to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

John Jaschke, the board's executive director, expects the Legislature to approve funding for counties to manage the buffer program.

"It does make the most sense by a long shot to have something like this done as a local land management program," Jaschke said.

Another issue for counties is how landowners will be compensated for land taken out of crop production and planted with permanent buffer vegetation.

Some farmers planting buffer strips now are able to enroll in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and get an annual per-acre payment for that land. But they won't be able to do so once the state buffer law takes effect. Jaschke said the state is negotiating with the federal government to adjust the rules.

Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson, who chairs the Association of Minnesota Counties Natural Resource and Environment policy committee, said he sees adequate compensation for farmers as the biggest unresolved issue.

"The state can't just take control of our land," said Nelson, who farms near Detroit Lakes and has enrolled buffer strips in the CRP program. "This is our livelihood so it's a real concern for farmers and as you know the commodity prices are down and there are some struggling farmers out there so it's a real problem."

Nelson estimates he could get $140 per acre in CRP compensation.

"If you're only doing three acres, that doesn't sound like much," he said, "but you multiply that over the whole state and that's a lot of money."

Jaschke said he's hopeful the federal government will agree farm land where buffers are required will be eligible for the Conservation Reserve Program. But even if that happens, he said, there's no guarantee the federal government will provide enough CRP funding to cover all Minnesota farmers who want in.

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