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By Rep. Paul Anderson
Gov. Dayton’s staff and commissioners are busy explaining the mandatory 50-foot buffer strip proposal that the governor spoke about at the recent DNR Roundtable. The announcement seemed to catch most observers off-guard as it hadn’t been discussed previously. Sold first as a habitat-enhancing program that would be enforced by the DNR, the emphasis quickly shifted to a water-quality program to be enforced locally.
I had staff from the Department of Agriculture and the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BOWSR) in my office last week to more fully explain the program and to get feedback. My concerns about the proposal are many; including the mandatory taking of productive farm land, the one-size-fits-all buffer requirement, questionable habitat improvement, and enforcement. Let’s take these items one at a time.
First, how is this land going to be converted into buffer strips? We certainly can’t take the number of acres this program would entail without compensation to the landowner. I’ve heard as high as 130,000 acres that would be put into this program. To bring that down to a more understandable number, if both sides of a drainage ditch along the half-mile length of an 80-acre parcel of land had 50 foot buffer strips, approximately six acres would be utilized. Would the farmer be allowed to plant a cover crop such as alfalfa and harvest it, or would there be haying restrictions? Would the state actually purchase this land, or would it mandate some kind of easement?
Most would agree that buffer strips in some areas would certainly slow erosion and the loss of top soil and nutrients. Current law says that when a ditch system undergoes a re-determination process and benefits are allocated to all who utilize the ditch, a one-rod or 16.5 foot buffer strip must be installed. So is that the correct width of a buffer strip, or is 50 feet the “new norm?”
Narrow strips of grass or some kind of cover crop are not the best way to give wildlife such as pheasants more “room.” These strips would become easy hunting areas for critters such as raccoons or skunks as they would concentrate on these areas. And simply increasing the acres of grassland doesn’t do much to provide food for wildlife.
I have received many comments from constituents who are not in favor of the state or DNR enforcing such a buffer requirement. It would be best left to local control, but therein lies a concern. Some counties are doing a more brisk job of enforcing the current requirements as they relate to buffer strips. Grant County is mentioned as one of those, with Ottertail just starting to ramp up its enforcement program. It was estimated by BOWSR chief John Jaschke that if all the ditch systems that have undergone re-determination had 100 percent compliance with current buffer statutes, it would only affect about 35 percent of the total number of drainage systems.
As one can see, there are many unanswered questions about this new proposal. At the very least, it should go before the Drainage Working Group for further study and not be rushed through the Legislature during this session. However, it seems to be a priority of the administration, or at least it was before the fireworks late last week concerning the huge pay increases granted by Gov. Dayton.
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