By Dave Orrick, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.
Gov. Mark Dayton's big buffer plan was buffeted Tuesday by opposition from farmers.
At a hearing at the state Capitol, two major farm groups announced they oppose Dayton's ambitious proposal, which would require 50-foot buffer zones along every river, stream and ditch in Minnesota to protect against farm runoff, pollution and erosion.
That opposition by the Minnesota Farmers Union and the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation followed a robust endorsement of the plan by Dayton's agriculture secretary -- himself a former president of the Farmers Union -- underscores the deep-seated resistance among agricultural interests to government-mandated environmental stewardship.
"It's an overreach for a regulatory taking by the government with no option for the landowner to appeal," Farmers Bureau public policy director Doug Busselman said during a a House environmental committee hearing, where the plan faced its first test.
While Busselman and Farmers Union lobbyist Thom Petersen said their members -- as many as 30,000 farmers and agricultural landowners -- support responsible farming and clean water, they criticized Dayton's plan as too broad, too strict and too soon.
Committee chairman Rep. Denny McNamara, R- Hastings, told the panel and the audience, which included a host of environmental groups supporting the plan, that farm lobby opposition means Dayton's plan, as it's currently fashioned, won't stand.
"I can tell you that in 14 years of doing this, if you want to get something done, and you can't bring ag to the table, it's not going to happen," McNamara said. "If you guys (Busselman and Petersen) are down here testifying ... the bill is not going to look like it does today for it to move ahead."
While no obvious middle ground was discussed in the hearing, supporters of the plan took the setback in stride.
"This is the first step of a very long road," said Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. "People have to take positions, and then we have to work through them."
Agriculture Commissioner Dave Fredrickson, a onetime farmer, said: "The discussion has begun. ... I'm an eternal optimist."
Fredrickson, a former state lawmaker, had expressed reservations about the prospects of strict regulation of buffer strips when they surfaced in December at the state's first Pheasant Summit convened by Dayton. But Tuesday, he said he has always supported the practice, which can stabilize stream banks and absorb fertilizer and pesticide runoff that renders many waterways in southwestern Minnesota lifeless.
While he acknowledged being "torn between two lovers" -- farmers and environmentalists -- he told lawmakers that buffers were "scientifically, the right thing to do," and a worthy endeavor for Minnesota.
"Our neighboring states, especially those in the Mississippi River basin, they're looking to us, the headwaters state, for leadership," he said. "What a huge message to send!"
The plan by Dayton, a Democrat, is contained in a bill introduced Monday by Rep. Paul Torkelson, R- Hanska. The bill would require that every landowner, public or private, plant perennial vegetation, which could range from natural grasses to hay to trees, within 50 feet of the bank of any waterway where water flows during most of the growing season.
The plan would protect an estimated 125,000 acres of wildlife habitat on private lands, which would remain private and be eligible for subsidies under various government programs, including the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
Some 45,000 of those acres are already covered by existing state law and rules, which require buffering of various sizes for various types of waterways. However, those laws and rules are inconsistently enforced, and many waters -- such as perhaps 80 percent of private ditches -- are exempted. As a result, annual row crops are frequently planted to the edge of banks.
Last week, the Minnesota Pollution Control 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.
Changes in farming practices and creation of more buffer strips were among the responses suggested by the agency.
Dayton's plan has been widely praised by environmental and conservation groups, including the Freshwater Society, Izaak Walton League, Pollinate Minnesota and Pheasants Forever.
"We've known since the 1940s that buffer strips work," said Steve Woods, executive director for the Freshwater Society, as he held up several studies dating back decades.
But Woods also told lawmakers he believed the timeline for Dayton's plan, which essentially requires buffers be in place by Sept. 1, 2016, was too fast.
"Timing can be a barrier for farmers, and we need to be mindful of that."