There are regulations today requiring vegetative buffers along waterways, but the rules can be confusing, can be interpreted and enforced differently across the state, and certainly do not provide the amount of habitat Governor Mark Dayton hopes to achieve with his recent proposal.
He is calling for a 50-foot buffer along 21,000 linear miles of waterway in the state, enough to provide 125,000 acres of habitat.
“In my mind the strength of it is the simplicity,’’ Dayton told reporters shortly after announcing his proposal last Friday at the Department of Natural Resource’s Roundtable in Brooklyn Park. “Everything is treated the same.’’
Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota DNR, and his staff are now at work turning those words into legislation to be introduced this session. Speaking to reporters last Friday, Landwehr said he is looking at the successful efforts in Olmsted and Otter Tail counties as the legislation is drafted. A combination of incentives and enforcement has brought both counties a long ways towards the goal the governor is seeking, he said.
Landwehr said two existing laws are currently at play when it comes to buffers. One pertains only to public ditches and requires a one-road (16.5 feet) buffer. The rules applies only to the public ditches that have been improved or developed since the requirement was first enacted, or about 6 percent of all ditches, he explained.
The other rule at play is the state’s shoreland zoning statute which counties are required to adopt as part of their zoning rules. The 50-foot buffer requirement applies to those waters formally designated as public waters and which have an agricultural purpose adjacent to them.
These public waters are where the bulk of the opportunity is, said Landwehr.
Kandiyohi County is among the counties which meets its responsibility to enforce the one-rod buffer requirement. Most landowners in the county understand the law and are very conscientious when farming next to these buffers, reports Loren Engelby, drainage officer in the county’s public works department.
There are 11 ditch systems in the county where the one-rod buffer requirement pertains. The 39.2 miles of waterway include 156.8 acres of buffers.
The Governor’s proposal- if the Legislature adopts it as he outlined it- would have its largest impact along what were once natural waterways in the county, but have now been channelized. There are 605 miles of open ditch, or channelized portions of Hawk Creek, Chetomba Creek, and Shakopee Creek, as well as the three branches of the Crow River in Kandiyohi County.
Governor Dayton emphasized that most farmers take seriously their responsibility as stewards of the land. He also pointed out that protecting waterways is a public purpose. “The water belongs to everybody and is used by everybody and everybody depends on it,’’ he said.
Dayton said he recognizes there is a cost in expanding buffers, but said the greater cost “is not doing it.’’ While the recent proposal resulted from last December’s Pheasant Summit and the desire to provide habitat to build back their numbers, everyone has agreed. They are really the “canary in the coal mine.’’
Conservation leaders at the Roundtable described the Governor’s buffer proposal as an opportunity to reach for the low hanging fruit when it comes to habitat protection.
There is a long ways to go.
In 2005, conservation leaders in the state adopted a pheasant plan with the goal of returning the state’s annual pheasant harvest to 750,000 birds.
To reach that goal, the 2005 plan called for protecting roughly 78,000 new acres of grassland a year until 1.56 million acres are added. It would bring the total to roughly 3.3 million in 2030.
We’ve been losing grassland ever since 2007, and we now have roughly 1.5 million acres of grassland in the state’s pheasant range. In 2013, pheasant hunters harvested 169,000 birds and last season’s hoped for harvest was pegged in the range of 224,000.