Buffer updates mean flexibility

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This November, local farmers are subject to the deadline for buffers on public waters.

The law, signed in June 2015, requires a 50 foot average, 30 foot minimum buffer on public waters and a 16.5 foot minimum buffer on public drainage systems, such as public ditches. This will create around 110,000 acres of year-round plant coverage bordering waterways in Minnesota.

The state law requires up to a 50 foot buffer zone between land used for agriculture or commercial purposes to help the impacts of fertilizer and water run off. (photos by Carver County)

While this is still true, there were a few new bills signed during the recent legislative session updating the law, that will give farmers more flexibility.

The overall goal for the buffer systems is to help keep stormwater and pollutants from entering public waterways. This will help keep lakes, rivers and drinking water cleaner. Landowners who do not comply with the new laws could face fines up to $500.

The Carver Soil and Water Conservation District (CSWCD) has been working with local farmers to help get their properties in compliance with the new law by the November 1 deadline.

Though, after the recent legislative session, a few changes were made to the law that could provide more flexibility.

Mike Wanous, the district manager for the Soil and Water Conservation Department(SWCD) said that legislatures had heard farmers express concern that the timeline was too quick. They also said that there are spots where buffers just aren’t needed.

Wanous said that there are some cases where farmers did not build their buffer because they were waiting to hear happened after this legislative session.
“There were a number of bills that would have changed the dates of the deadline,” Wanous said.

He said there were two large conversations had and bills passed during the session. The first is a waiver that farmers can apply for. With this new waiver, farmers who won’t be able to meet the deadline can create a compliance plan and ask for an extension. That extension would be until July 2018.

“For sure there will be a handful that will take advantage of that,” he said.
Wanous thinks specifically of the farmers who waited for the legislative session to conclude. He said if there is a late fall with a harvest, farmers most likely will not have their buffer planted.

The second big update to the law is “alternative practices”. Wanous said these focus on the special cases where a buffer is not needed. For example a buffer is most likely unnecessary at a point in the land where there is a negative slope away from public waters or public ditches he said.

“It gives farmers an opportunity to focus on water quality in areas that really need it,” he said.

Wanous also pointed out that this gives more flexibility to the SWCD at a local level. He said that it should allow farmers to be more able to go to the SWCD and work together to find the best management practices. This new bill helps the law to be more site specific according to Wanous.

Wanous and Paul Moline, the public works manager brought these updates to the Board of Commissioners in a work session last Tuesday.

“We wanted to get in front of the board because there were so many new bills,” he said.

Wanous said there was one last update that may highly impact farmers. That update is the option for counties to enforce these regulations at a local level, or they can choose to have the state enforce them.

He said it seemed that the board was leaning more towards the state enforcing the regulations because the money the county would receive to do it themselves, would not be enough to cover the actual cost.

To learn more or be apart of the conversation, you can attend county board meetings on the first and third Tuesdays of every month at the Carver County Government Center, Human Services Building in Chaska, Minnesota.

Or watch videos of the meetings at www.co.carver.mn.us/government/county-board-of-commissioners/meetings-and-agendas

The bill was implemented due to pollution concerns in the water, specifically phosphorus.

“It’s controversial,” said CSWCD Farm Bill Technician Ben Datres. “We had a few land owners who gave us a lot of push back, but we also had a few who said they understood and that this was something they should have been doing.”

Datres said that for farmers that work their land right up to waterways, they are only getting run off coverage for about six months of the year and that if they are using a fertilizer, that phosphorus is going straight into the water. With the new buffers, deeper root systems will help filter out the phosphorus and other harmful chemicals from reaching the water systems.

“There are alternates to that 50 foot buffer depending on the water system we’re talking about,” he said. “If that buffer doesn’t make sense, we can go measure and on something that does make sense.”

That loss of workable land doesn’t necessarily mean farmers will lose money, either. Thanks to the Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), farmers can declare their buffers and earn a portion of around $500 million in state and federal funds to help offset costs to farmers.

“People can make their money back, which we hope will get them to comply with the law,” Datres said. “They have to plant some kind of native species to get money from the CREP, but for cattle farmers for instance, that space can also be used for hay or alfalfa.”

According to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, farmers who enroll in the Minnesota CREP enter into a 14-15 year contract with the state to receive money on their new buffer zones. Land owners would earn compensation based on their land’s value while maintaining ownership of the land. Enrollment is open and will remain open until the all funding has been allocated. For more information on the Minnesota CREP, visit http://www.bwsr.state.mn.us/crep/.