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Dayton backs off buffers for private ditches after meeting GOP leaders

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Plans to make farmers and landowners with private ditches install "buffer zones" of vegetation to limit contamination of Minnesota's waters have been shelved by Gov. Mark Dayton.

In an announcement on Friday, Dayton said he has told the Department of Natural Resources to stop mapping private drainage ditches after meeting with GOP House leaders on Thursday. Here are some of his comments.

"The Republican legislators insisted that they did not intend those ditches to be included in the scope of the legislation, even though its buffering requirements would not take effect until November 2018.

"Threats have been reported to me that DNR and BWSR (Board of Water and Soil Resources) bonding requests – which are urgently needed to address the state's serious water quality and infrastructure challenges – would not be considered by House leadership, if private ditches were not retroactively exempted from the new buffer requirement.

"I am deeply disappointed by this, because we should require all Minnesotans to take responsibility for the quality of the water that they pass on to their fellow citizens. I thought that we had achieved a modest agreement in the last legislative session about the urgent need to improve the quality of Minnesota’s waters by limiting their pollution from runoffs from private and public ditches."

The Pioneer Press says the move represents Dayton "ceding ground" to farm interests and Republicans over his landmark buffer strip plan, despite warning farmers last year to support the proposal or see Minnesota's famous waters become "cesspools."

What's the significance of this?

Dayton heavily pushed for new legislation to create "buffer zones" around Minnesota's lakes, rivers and streams during last year's legislative session, after research emerged highlighting heavy levels of pollution, which rendered waters in parts of the state un-swimmable and un-fishable.

Factors in the pollution are the chemicals, nutrients and sediment running off into the water from farmland.

To combat this, the state passed a new law requiring buffers of vegetation between farmland and waterways to filter out agricultural chemicals before they entered the water.

As The Friends of the Mississippi River explains, the new law requires buffers averaging 50 feet wide of "continuous perennial vegetation" be placed alongside public waters by Nov. 1, 2017, and buffers of a minimum 16.5 feet in width placed around "public ditches" by Nov. 1, 2018.

But Minnesota is also home to many private ditches, including those on farmland, some of which feed into Minnesota's public waterways and drainage systems. These will now be exempted from the law.

"Public and private ditches do not look or function differently on the ground," a DNR spokesperson told BringMeTheNews. "Both are open channels that conduct the flow of water, and therefore, both have the potential to carry sediment and associated pollutants to our public waterways."

MPR reported last year that Dayton intended for these private ditches to be included in the legislation, but agricultural groups and, judging by Dayton's comments, Republican lawmakers, did not.

The news organization notes the final budget bill passed last year was only agreed in the "waning hours of the legislative session," and the Minnesota Corn Growers Association said it could require the Legislature to "refine the law" this year.

It is not clear at this stage how many miles of private ditches in Minnesota there are, or how many of them are on farmland.

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