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First stages: SWCD completes study of preliminary buffer map

Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe 1 / 2
This waterway north of Worthington has a 66-foot grassed buffer to protect the waters and filter out sediment coming from adjacent farm fields. Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe 2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — Nearly a year after the state’s controversial buffer program was signed into law, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources continues to make progress on releasing preliminary maps to counties showing where 50-foot buffers are required on protected waters, and where 16.5-foot buffers are needed on public ditches.

The preliminary maps have been released by the DNR in stages, with the first group of counties gaining access to the maps in mid-March. In Nobles County, Soil and Water Conservation District Manager John Shea said access to the preliminary maps was received April 7. Local Farm Bill Technician Austin DeWitt analyzed the maps and worked with the DNR to make the corrections prior to this week’s deadline.

Final maps are expected sometime in June in Nobles County, while some counties in the state have to wait until June 2 to get their first look at the preliminary maps.

Once the DNR finalizes the maps, Shea said the local office will begin notifying landowners where buffers are required.

“We will send a preliminary letter to landowners letting them know they do have a DNR-protected water,” Shea said. By then, he hopes to have a list of alternative practices to present as well.

Landowners have several options to consider when installing the buffers. The land can be enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program’s continuous sign-up or another federal program. Depending on the program, farmers may be able to hay or graze the buffers.

Shea recommends landowners wait until Aug. 1, however, to mow the buffers due to nesting birds. Also, grass should be mowed to a height of no less than 4- to 6 inches to maintain the effectiveness of the buffer.

“Haying is a double-edged sword. If you remove the vegetation from the top, the roots will absorb more nutrients, which can be better for the soil, but if you hay it too short, it’s not filtering,” Shea said.

Landowners have the option to enroll in either a 10- or 15-year CRP easement. The average price paid for contracts is $217 per acre, but varies based on soil type and practice. CRP also offers a 50 percent cost-share on seed to establish the buffers, with a maximum dollar-per-acre based on the practice.

One of the concerns of the buffer program, when it was announced a year ago, was that there wouldn’t be enough grass seed to establish all of the newly required buffers. Shea said there may be a shortage of certain types of grass seed, but seed companies have been working to produce more since the buffer law was passed.

“Within Nobles County we have 10 or 15 grasses that seem to work better than others,” he said. “We have custom mixes we sell through the SWCD that we think are pretty successful, and a drill that we rent out.”

Landowners have until Nov. 1, 2017, to establish the buffers along public waters, and November 2018 to plant buffers along public ditches. In Nobles County, Shea said some farmers have already enrolled buffers in CRP, while others plan to farm it as long as they can before the required implementation date.

To give farmers added incentive to plant buffers, the Kanaranzi-Little Rock Watershed is offering a one-time, $150-per-acre payment to landowners who install buffers before December 2017, whether they are required by the new state law or not. The payment was approved last fall by the watershed’s board of managers and incentivizes producers for the first 50 feet of a buffer strip.

In Shea’s dual role as K-LR watershed administrator, he said landowners within the watershed district will have to maintain the buffers for a minimum of five years.

“They can hay or graze those acres as long as it’s within the legal ramifications of the buffer program,” he said, adding that landowners must apply to the K-LR for the incentive payment. Applications are available at the Nobles SWCD office.

Meanwhile, the Okabena-Ocheda Watershed District has discussed elimination of incentive payments on buffers required by the new state law. However, if a landowner establishes a CRP buffer wider than what is required, OOWD Administrator Dan Livdahl said the watershed will provide an incentive for the additional land seeded in cover. The OOWD board plans to have discussion on the incentive payments at its June meeting.

“People who are interested in re-enrolling a buffer in the CRP program, or enrolling a new buffer, (should) check with us to see if they are eligible for annual incentive payments,” Livdahl said.

The Heron Lake Watershed District does not offer an incentive payment for installation of buffers.

While the state’s buffer law will certainly increase the amount of land protecting Minnesota’s water courses, buffers are not a new practice.

“This practice is the cheapest step toward clean water as a whole,” Shea said. “Filter strips alone will not clean our water. We still need to have best management practices on the uplands.

“We always have the ability to help people with sediment basins, terraces and waterways, either through NRCS (the Natural Resources Conservation Service) or SWCD or joint applications,” he added.

Shea said installing practices that help keep topsoil in its place, or at least out of the water, is cheaper than building projects to clean water after gullies have washed soils downstream.

“Seeing that sediment go right into the surface water is a huge concern for us,” Shea said. “Once it’s in there, it takes a lot of money to get it out — settling ponds and structures that would remove the sediment. Stopping it on the upland with grassed waterways and terraces is always cheaper.”

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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