Recently Governor Mark Dayton, of Minnesota, signed into law, a statewide program that will require an estimated 110,000 acres of farmland to be seeded down to buffer strips for water quality. In short, the law establishes new perennial vegetation buffers of up to 50 feet wide along rivers, streams, and ditches that will help filter out phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment.
As I delve more into this law, what I find most remarkable is that this bill ultimately provides for flexibility in the width of the filter strip. According to an online publication, instead of requiring a 50 foot wide filter strip, the law stipulates that “a combination of practices may be used to sufficiently meet water quality goals – and when that happens, a buffer may not be needed.” Really, wow, good for Minnesota!
Ordinarily, in the interest of simplicity and expediency, regulation smacks all farmers equally. Regardless of their previous conservation efforts, all farmers suffer the same outcome. But in Minnesota, it seems to be different. A farmer’s conservation efforts actually seem to matter. In Minnesota, if a farmer controls soil erosion by using no-till or terraces he is rewarded with less acres in buffers and more acres in farmland.
This approach taken by Minnesota should come as no surprise. In March 2012, the Freshwater Society hosted a conference on Precision Conservation. This conference was one the first of its kind to focus on potential strategies for targeting conservation and pollution-prevention in agriculture. I can only assume that from this conference, the concept of precision conservation has taken root in Minnesota.
As I said, good for Minnesota, but now comes the hard part. To do this there are 1,000 questions and this is where the rubber meets the road. How is Minnesota going to carry out this program? How does Minnesota…
- Quantify, verify, and record the upslope conservation used by a farmer?
- Develop a process to scientifically design a buffer strip with a variable width?
- Streamline the process to make the program viable?
- Develop a technical workforce that helps farmers design site specific buffer strips?
- Develop a transparent process that instills confidence with the public?
These are the questions that I am sure keep the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resource up at night. I am sure there are days when they wish the law was just a 50 foot filter strip, nothing less. It sure would be a lot easier for the regulators. But honestly Minnesota, you got it right.
In my next post, I will highlight some existing precision conservation tools that show promise in addressing the above questions. With integration, they have the potential to offer an outstanding system for variable width buffer strips.
Our conference was an eye-opener for many policy makers, but the precision conservation momentum was gaining steam on it’s own by 2012 thanks to statewide LiDAR and clever GIS jockeys. We merely tried to highlight the early successes and explain to the impatient that it takes a couple years for the tools and skills to become widespread. Luckily no one shot the messenger…
SW of the Freshwater Society
There is still a long way to go to make precision conservation a reality but LiDAR is one of the final pieces to make it a reality.
When voluntary programs fail to be implemented, they become required by law which usually results in many additional program issues as you have identified.
Iowa turned this down years ago because it was considered a regulatory taking. Don’t know how the buffer width is measured, but if it is all out of crop land it figures to be 12 acres per mile of stream. Even half of that figures to be about $50,000 of land taken per mile. I know not the details, but “voluntarily” doing conservation practices so that the government will take less land doesn’t sound like its 100% right. Who will plant and maintain the buffer? Can it be used for profit? Can the buffer be disturbed by drainage districts? Will there be nesting season restrictions? Can it be enrolled in CRP, if so then why is the USDA paying for a mandated buffer? Lots of questions.
Don, understand your concern with regulations. I did not mean imply that requiring buffers was the right thing, but when Minnesota decided to mandate buffers fortunately they did not decided that one size fits all. They allow farmers to reduce the buffer width based on up-slope conservation. Farmers have options.