Coming soon to a field near you: Buffer strips to battle water pollution set for 2016

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Environmental officials say they should be ready to install 50-foot "buffer strips" between farms and sources of fresh water in Minnesota by summer 2016.

The issue proved controversial when it was discussed in the legislature, with farming unions among those objecting to it, but it was very much backed by the DNR and conservation groups after a report earlier this year revealed the shocking state of much of Minnesota's lakes and rivers.

To reduce or stop chemical runoff from farmland entering the state's streams, rivers and lakes, Gov. Mark Dayton pushed for a plan to install buffer strips of vegetation that separates farmland from water sources, allowing runoff to be filtered before entering streams and lakes.

On Wednesday, the DNR revealed its timeline for the plan, saying that it hopes by this summer to be in a position to start installing the strips. It has started to draw up maps of which parts of the state will be affected, and will later get feedback on its first draft from cities, towns and landowners.

Land situated next to public waters in Minnesota will require a buffer of vegetation that averages 50-foot in width – which takes into account that some areas will require smaller buffers, others larger (a complaint from the farming industry was that you can't have a 50-foot, one-size-fits-all policy).

Also, buffers measuring 16.5 feet in width will be required next to ditches that are within public drainage systems.

Farmers who don't want a buffer may not need to have one installed, however – provided they offer another way of improving local water quality.

The DNR says it will "work directly with landowners and help them use the maps to create the right-size buffer, or help the landowner select an alternative water quality practice in lieu of a buffer."

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found in March that most of the streams and all the lakes in the southwest of Minnesota were so polluted that they were rendered "unswimmable," with agricultural runoff highlighted as a major cause.

You can read more about the buffer plan here.

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