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Money set aside to preserve Minnesota land, improve water

ST. PAUL -- A state-federal program supported by groups ranging from conservationists to farmers is designed to improve Minnesota water quality by paying landowners to preserve 60,000 acres.

ST. PAUL - A state-federal program supported by groups ranging from conservationists to farmers is designed to improve Minnesota water quality by paying landowners to preserve 60,000 acres.

The land in southern and western Minnesota would be marginal farmland, state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said. But if it is preserved, state officials said, it can be used to protect the state's water and improve wildlife habitat.

The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which would include the equivalent of 100 square miles, would provide 5,000 miles of buffers between cropland and water and reduce drinking water pollution. Drinking water in the 54 counties the program targets generally is of poor quality and in some areas health officials say fish caught there are not safe to eat. Also, wildlife numbers are far below where they were years ago.

On Tuesday, Jan. 17, Gov. Mark Dayton signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to pay landowners, mostly farmers, $500 million to preserve the land. Washington would provide $350 million; the state would add $150 million, nearly $55 million of which has been appropriated.

"Minnesota is at a critical juncture in addressing our state's serious water quality challenges," said Dayton, who is making a clean-water push this year.

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About half of the 60,000 acres in the program, known as CREP, can be used to increase buffers between cropland and water, according to Executive Director John Jaschke of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. The rest of the land mostly will be used to restore wetlands, with some being used to protect water wells.

Government funds would be used to restore lands, either to grasslands in buffers or wetlands, including planting native grasses and other vegetation.

Once dirt work and planting are done, the land's owner will be responsible to maintain it perpetually. The owner will have control of the land as long as CREP rules are followed. Being part of CREP does not turn it into public land.

No one will be forced to take CREP money and remove the land from crops.

Existing law requires plant buffers between cropland and water, but Sen. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake and other Republicans say they hope to change that Dayton initiative this legislative session. There are moves to make the buffer law less restrictive.

While Jaschke said he does not know how many acres will be need buffers under current law, he said that the program announced Tuesday would be a significant help in establishing them.

Jaschke said he thinks about 5,000 landowners will receive money for preserving the 60,000 CREP acres. Enrollment in the program could start as early as April; officials expect it to take less than five years to get the 60,000 acres enrolled.

State Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, warned that seeds used to restore CREP land must be pure. He said he worries that an invasive plant that has spread across southwestern Minnesota could inadvertently be planted on CREP land.

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Jaschke said care is taken to avoid invasive species seeds, but there are no "seed police" to guarantee none will be sown.

Dayton said that among the CREP benefits will be keeping 246 million pounds of sediment and 19,000 pounds of phosphorus out of water each year.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said fish in waters protected by the CREP program will be healthier, and animals that will benefit from improved habitat include pheasants, ducks, Bobolinks, deer, rabbits and insects.

Increasing the amount of wetlands also can slow flooding, Jaschke said.

Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, said one benefit of the program will be allowing young Minnesotans to see rural land as it once was.

"They have the ability with CREP to leave that for their kids," he said of landowners.

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