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Dayton to farmers: Support buffer zones, or watch our waters become cesspools

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Governor Mark Dayton has thrown down the gauntlet to farmers, telling them to support his plans for "buffer zones" – or watch Minnesota's waterways become "cesspools."

The Governor was flanked by cabinet members and several DFL lawmakers as he pushed forward with his plans Thursday to introduce 50-foot vegetation buffers along lakes, rivers, streams and ditches, KARE 11 reports.

Why the emotive language? Well, several voices in the farming industry have already come out against the plan, which he says will reduce the pollution of Minnesota's streams and rivers caused by chemical runoff from agricultural fertilizers.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is in favor of the zones, and in recent weeks has hit the headlines after revealing that pollution caused primarily by intensive farming has left many waters in parts of the state unsuitable for fishing and swimming, and harmful to aquatic life.

"I believe that to have to pay somebody to stop a practice that has been proven dangerous to the environment around that activity is really to me un-Minnesotan," Dayton said, according to the Pioneer Press.

"I would challenge those who are engaged in this practice to just look into their souls."

"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 are gonna wanna enjoy it and where wildlife wants to enjoy it," he added.

How would buffer zones work?

Dayton's plan would create 125,000 acres of vegetation buffers around Minnesota's lakes, rivers and streams that are currently surrounded by cropland.

Having farmland so close to waterways increases the amount of nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediment entering the water, through natural runoff and from farmers "tiling" the land to remove excess surface water.

High levels of nutrients in the water can be harmful to wildlife, and can cause algae and aquatic plants to proliferate.

According to a new section on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website, buffers would help filter out these nutrients by "trapping sediments with these pollutants and allowing vegetation to absorb them."

Who is opposed?

The bill is currently in both houses of Minnesota's legislature, and while it was passed by a committee in the DFL-led Senate this week, the Pioneer Press says it faces a "tougher road" in the Republican-controlled House.

GOP Rep. Paul Torkelson, himself a farmer, told the Star Tribune that buffers should be voluntary, and that Dayton's proposal "would require condemnation of personal property," adding that farmers "must be properly compensated."

As you can tell by his comments above, Dayton is opposed to paying farmers to "do the right thing," but his agriculture commissioner Dave Fredrickson did say in Thursday's news conference that farmers could receive annual payments, the newspaper notes.

The proposal has support from environmental groups, but Bruce Peterson, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, says Dayton's proposal is too broad and doesn't take into account variation between different farmers' land.

"We don't believe one size fits all is the answer," he said, according to KTTC.

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