Mower County unaffected by latest state buffer controversy

Local ordinance passed last fall invokes less-severe penalty than state proposal

Friday, April 13, 2018 — Mower County conservation officials are emphasizing that local landowners never would have faced the potentially stiffer penalties related to the new buffer law that became a widely discussed issue this week statewide.

In fall 2017, the Mower County Board approved an ordinance for buffer-law enforcement locally after working with Mower Soil & Water Conservation District staff, which has worked directly with agricultural landowners on buffer law compliance.

Mower County’s ordinance — which takes effect this summer — created a penalty order process much less severe than the proposed penalty released earlier in the week by the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources (BWSR) and that local ordinance will be what is followed for enforcement in the county, said Justin Hanson, district manager for Mower SWCD.

“We have been hearing this week from landowners in Mower County who believe this proposed buffer penalty is a local problem and that’s due to a lot of misinformation getting put out by organizations,” Hanson said.

On Thursday, BWSR’s Buffers, Soils and Drainage Committee voted unanimously — due to negative public feedback — to reject a draft amendment to the Administrative Penalty Order Plan (APO) for buffer implementation. The amendment, which drew much criticism during the week, had proposed stiff penalties for non-compliance with the buffer law.

Earlier in the week, BWSR executive director John Jaschke sent a letter of apology to Minnesota landowners and farmers for releasing a draft proposal that was not in the spirit of the law and was created without engagement with key stakeholders.

Buffers are areas or strips of land kept in permanent vegetation — not farmed — to slow water runoff and help filter out pollutants, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, as well as sediment. They also provide wildlife habitat and stabilize land along water.

Under the 2015 law, landowners need to establish on public waterways a buffer averaging 50 feet wide with no less than 30 feet in any spot, unless approved for alternative practices. Public ditches must have at least 16.5 feet of buffer on each side.

Like most counties in Minnesota, Mower County and Mower SWCD officials decided last year that it did not want the state involved with buffer enforcement on local landowners, Hanson said.

“We wanted to handle it locally given the great level of volunteer participation in Mower County with buffer compliance and due to the progress we have made toward achieving full compliance since state legislators passed the law in 2015,” Hanson said. “We did not feel the need for an overly restrictive and steep penalty for buffers.”

Justin Hanson, Mower SWCD district manager

Mower County had nearly 95 percent compliance before the state buffer law along public waterways. Today, 98.5 percent of Mower landowners have notified Mower SWCD that their buffer complies with state law or will be in compliance by this spring.

Fines, however, will be a possibility for Mower County landowners who do not comply with the buffer law’s requirements. When the local ordinance takes effect July 1, Mower County will have an escalating fine that starts at $100 per parcel monthly. If a landowner refuses to implement proper buffer, the fine could grow to $500 per parcel each month.

July 1 is the deadline statewide for compliant buffers along public waterways. Landowners will need to contact Mower SWCD when their buffers are in place prior to the July 1 deadline to avoid potential fines.

In 2017, Mower SWCD conducted two mailings in January and September to Mower County landowners identified by local staff as likely needing to add vegetative buffer to comply with state law.

During the 2017 legislative session, state lawmakers approved extended deadlines for buffer compliance.

Public waterways are designated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Public drainage ditches also have vegetative buffer requirements but those won’t need compliance until Nov. 1, 2018.

Since the buffer issue emerged, Mower County landowners also have enrolled more than 4,000 acres into the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that typically involves conservation easements of 10 to 15 years.

For more information on the buffer law, contact James Fett at Mower SWCD at 507–434–2603 or by email at james.fett@mowerswcd.org. You also can visit BWSR’s webpage at www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers.

Formed in 2007, CRWD works to reduce flooding and improve water quality on the Cedar River State Water Trail and its tributaries in southern Minnesota.