ST. PAUL - Earl Benson welcomed the news this summer that Minnesota lawmakers had struck a deal to bolster the protective vegetative buffer strips along the state’s rivers and lakes.
Studies show strips of perennial plants separating agricultural row crops from shorelands and public drainage ditches do a lot to protect waters such as Lake Byllesby, where Benson lives in southern Dakota County.
Yet for years, enforcement of existing buffer rules was inconsistent and in many places non-existent. Water from six counties drains into the Cannon River and Lake Byllesby, but just one, Dakota County, has robust buffer enforcement.
“We can identify every single violator. We know exactly who they are. This isn’t brain surgery; it’s Earth science,” said Benson. “If we have the political will, we can do it.”
That political will might have arrived.
After a contentious debate at this year’s Legislature, the way Minnesota protects its lakes, rivers and drinking water supplies is about to undergo changes that could have far-reaching impact. State and local leaders have proven tools, new enforcement powers and a dedicated source of funding.
Those changes come as an annual stream of funding from the 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment’s Clean Water Fund is paying off: After several years of studying the state’s largest watersheds, Minnesota now has a sharper picture of the sources of pollutants - and a growing arsenal of specific plans to clean up its most troubled waters.
Although some waters continue to deteriorate, most are stable or improving, and success stories are surfacing. In southwest Minnesota’s Lincoln County, for example, long-polluted Lake Shaokatan has been restored to conditions similar to the pristinity of the pre-settlement era. On the edge of Willmar, 1,400-acre Grass Lake - drained a century ago for farming - is being rehabilitated to act as a natural filter to a chain of lakes that feed the Crow River.
Gov. Mark Dayton says he wants to name a water administrator to oversee one of the top priorities of his second, and final, term - improving water quality. While the Legislature has not yet provided dedicated funding for the post, Dayton said in May that he wanted someone in his administration advising him and lawmakers on other ways to clean up Minnesota’s waters.
“It is certainly something I would like to make progress on before I go,” Dayton said at the time of his plans to improve water quality.
To that aim, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is expected to identify 110,000 acres of state shorelands and public drainage ditches that must be protected by up to 50-foot buffers. Detailed maps are expected to be completed by the DNR by next July.
The designation of protected land, along with broader enforcement powers and new funding, are the key points of the compromise lawmakers settled in the 2015 legislative session. Research from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that buffers are an important way to prevent pollutants from entering public waterways.
Studies in Minnesota and other states have found vegetative buffers along waterways can intercept 50 percent or more of the pollutants, nutrients and sediment that runoff would otherwise carry into rivers and lakes.
It’s unclear how much it will cost to protect that land, but it will mean lost revenue for many farmers. Corn growers, for example, could be sacrificing more than $516 an acre, based on last year’s average yield of 156 bushels per acre and the current corn prices of $3.31 per bushel.
Fifty-foot buffers along state-protected waters have been required for decades, but enforcement has been inconsistent. Buffers of about 16 feet along public ditches also were required, but only after the financial impact on landowners was determined, a process that has crawled along for decades.
Now, landowners must create buffers along public waterways by November 2017 and along public ditches by November 2018, according to the DNR. Local officials will primarily be responsible for enforcement, but state officials can step in, and landowners who do not comply will face fines.
Under the legislation, lawmakers earmarked $22 million to help local soil and water boards implement the new buffers law. In addition, there are state and federal grants to help landowners offset the costs of converting productive land into protective buffer strips.
Dave Leuthe is leading the mapping project for the DNR. He said the department is working closely with county officials and soil and water boards to provide accurate information as quickly as possible.
“We are getting many questions and hearing many concerns and we are thoughtfully considering all this early input as we design and plan our approach to do this project,” Leuthe said.
Bruce Peterson, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said the new land designations can’t come soon enough. Until then, all farm groups and conservationists can do is work on educating landowners about the changes.
“Farmers want to know where these areas are,” said Peterson, who noted a growing awareness among farmers that Minnesota’s waterways require protection.
“I think if you went back four or five years ago, a lot of farmers were not aware they had public waters or were not aware of the law. I think the main point of emphasis with this legislation is it brought more awareness to the issue.”
Farmers and their lobbyists fought hard against broader water protections proposed by Dayton, and Peterson said he supports this spring’s compromise. Still, many predict pushback as farmers are required to lose productive cropland to protective buffers.
But recent experiences in such places as Dakota County suggest the opposition might not be as strong as many expect.
Before launching a comprehensive campaign to bring landowners into compliance with buffer laws three years ago, the county beefed up local enforcement powers, said Brian Watson, executive director of the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District.
The county now has more than 95 percent of property owners complying with the law.
When the county’s compliance push began, 60 of 160 parcels along the river did not comply with buffer rules, Zabel said. A year later, the number was cut in half.
By the end of 2013, just one landowner was issued a citation requiring a court appearance for not following buffer rules, Zabel said. The case ended in an agreement to create a buffer strip.
After their success enforcing buffer rules, Zabel and other Dakota County conservationists have sharpened their focus on other ways to protect the county’s waters.
For example, they want to encourage landowners to find other ways to deal with water flowing through private land. That could mean protecting those sudden streams that appear briefly after heavy rains or ditches and culverts that cut through farms before emptying into state-protected waters.
“This is a watershed-wide issue,” Zabel said. “It isn’t just about the land next to water.”
Time will tell if the work pays off.
“We moved the ball in terms of compliance, and we expect water-quality improvement as a result of that,” Zabel said. “There will be complicating factors that will dampen our ability to see it clearly.”
Peterson, who farms near Northfield, said flexibility and local oversight will be key to a smooth implementation of the new buffer rules.
“What works for one farmer may not work very well for his neighbor,” Peterson said. “There needs to be flexibility because every farmer is different.”
Flexibility, or as the DNR calls it, “alternative practice options for landowners,” is included in the new buffer rules. If a 50-foot buffer is unrealistic for certain parcels, landowners can take other steps, such as planting perennial cover crops, restoring existing wetlands or diverting runoff in other ways.
At the root of most water-protection efforts, including Dayton’s buffer initiative, is a simple idea: The slower water moves across land to lakes and streams, the less likely it is to carry such pollutants as nitrates, phosphorus, sediments and bacteria with it. Buffers are not the only way to accomplish this, and for years, Minnesota has had success with other initiatives.
The philosophy is “keep the water on the land,” and over the next five years, Minnesota is increasing the number of projects aimed at doing that, including work funded with $135 million from the Legacy Amendment’s Clean Water Fund.
Most of the techniques or technology aren’t new, and such work has been going on in some form or another for decades.
“The common denominator is holding the water on the land,” said John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources, which distributes grants throughout the state and oversees projects that promise to protect lakes and streams from pollution.
“Holding the water on the land provides filtration and reduces the velocity of streams during storms.”
Jaschke noted that before European settlement, the natural ecosystems of the rolling hills and isolated potholes in Upper Midwestern prairies already had a system for filtering water.
Starting in the late 1800s - and continuing today - farmers have transformed the landscape to produce the highest yields of crops. Often, the goal was draining water as quickly as possible. Drain tiles - underground plumbing networks - were installed, and once-isolated wetlands were connected by culverts and ditches. The result: Unfiltered water has been rushing off the land for decades, carrying with it nutrients, both natural and manmade.
“If we can put nature back to the way it was, but still allow private landowners to make their livelihoods from the land, then we can clean up the water,” Jaschke said.
“In some cases, we’re restoring large lakes, but sometimes that’s just not possible. In some places, we can’t put a wetland back because it’s being farmed, so we have to use more human-created designs.
“We can use chemicals to remove nitrates, but that’s a Band-Aid and has to be repeated. We can infiltrate water into the ground … sort of like rain gardens you see in more urban areas. If you have concentrated water in a gully or a pipe, you can install a sediment-control basin or stormwater pond upstream. Buffer strips, of course, are a really important part of this, too.”
Each piece of land is unique, and each project is designed specifically to address the hydrological idiosyncrasies of that parcel.
Drain tile challenge
The challenge - in addition to playing catch-up with a century’s worth of questionable land practices - is keeping up with the pace of new pollutants entering waters.
For example, farmers are increasingly using nitrogen-rich fertilizers more efficiently. However, that isn’t always translating to a reduction of total nitrates in the water because more corn and soybeans can be grown from the same acre than decades ago. Farmers may be using fewer chemicals per cornstalk, but there are more cornstalks, so the total amount of fertilizer applied to a given acre has often increased.
“We see a much better job of farmers being judicious,” said Glenn Skuta, surface-water monitoring manager for the MPCA, which monitors water and identifies sources of excessive runoff.
“That’s a big positive. But at the same time, you’ve got more acres going into crops. And the rows are getting tighter, and you’ve got way more drain tile.”
Drain tile - the Achilles’ heel of traditional buffer strips - continues to proliferate. Nitrates dissolve in water. That water flows through the pipes of a drain tile system and is dumped directly into a drainage ditch, bypassing the filtering effects of a buffer strip.
But experts say waters can still be protected with drain tiles in place.
In many cases, simply rerouting drain tile outflows can make the difference. Examples include:
- Restoring or creating wetlands - or using existing ones - to receive the drain tile flow.
- Peeling back the drain tile so it no longer empties directly into a waterway, but rather into a buffer strip, known as a saturated buffer.
- Creating filter strips that filter more nutrients than natural vegetation, such as “wood chip bio-reactors” that are designed specifically to remove nitrates, or various underground storage tanks that prevent heavy rains from inundating ditches.
“Typically, if we give a farmer a free-flowing outlet, he or she is happy,” said Tom Wenzel, a senior water resources engineer with Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources who has coordinated several projects. “If we can put the right system in place right there at the outlet, we’re removing 60 to 80 percent of the nitrates.”
No one has attempted to calculate the total cost of cleaning up all of the state’s waters, but MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine has said one thing has become clear: Minnesota is not spending enough now, despite the infusion from the Legacy Amendment.
Statewide, about a fifth of the state’s lakes are improving, one-tenth are becoming more contaminated and the rest are stable - although not necessarily clean enough to support aquatic life and recreation. In rivers and streams, some pollutants, like phosphorous, are decreasing, while others, such as nitrates, are generally on the rise.
Like many conservationists, Benson, who has spent much of his life living along Lake Byllesby, realizes much remains to be done, but he said the recent attention given to efforts to improve Minnesota’s water quality will be a catalyst.
He’s hopeful other local leaders will follow Dakota County’s lead.
“We still have a problem; we haven’t eliminated it,” Benson said. “Living on the lake, I can see the result of fertilizers and nitrogen. People on the lake welcome the buffer strips.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.