50-foot buffer zones along MN waters: Who is for it, who is against it?

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 (Photo: Doug Kerr, Flickr)

The idea of a 50-foot buffer zone – essentially a protective strip of land – along the edge of all state waters is, as expected, proving divisive.

But on Tuesday, a hearing at the Capitol gave opponents and proponents a chance to weigh in for the first time.

Gov. Mark Dayton proposed the idea (without much, if any, advance warning) at a DNR conference in January. His reasoning: The requirement would reduce water pollution and increase wildlife habitat.

Crops that get planted right up to the edge of a waterway can increase the amount of runoff that gets into the water, and also damage the banks.

Companion bills were introduced in both the House and Senate this week – they were sent to an environmental committee in both chambers, and will need to be passed there before going up for a full vote.

Taking sides

So who's against it, at least at this point? Many farmers, for one.

The Pioneer Press says two key farm unions openly oppose the plan, painting it as governmental overreach that applies a strict, one-size-fits-all approach to a problem that's more nuanced than that.

The DNR and pheasant-hunting groups (pheasants would likely benefit significantly from the buffer zone) have both come out for the buffers, the Star Tribune reports.

Tom Landwehr, the DNR commissioner, told the paper it's not a cure-all – but it will improve water quality.

The concept of protective buffer isn't new.

The Associated Press said buffer zones of grass or other vegetation are already required on some of the state’s waters, but enforcement at the local level has been spotty.

According to the Pioneer Press, 45,000 acres on private land are currently required to have some type of required buffer, but they're inconsistent and many ditches have exemptions. The new 50-foot proposal would cover a total of 125,000 such acres.

The state Agriculture Department has long encouraged farmers to use a strip of grass as a filter between fields and surface water. The department says in addition to helping water quality and wildlife habitat, it can stabilize eroding riverbanks and reduce downstream flooding.

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