Cooperative Network testifies on buffer law in joint Senate committee hearing
Cooperative Network recently testified at a joint committee hearing on Minnesota’s buffer law. Members of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R – Alexandria) and the Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Torrey Westrom (R – Elbow Lake), heard from several state agencies, stakeholder groups, and the general public.
Several committee members stated their concerns with the law’s March 31 deadline for counties or water districts to determine whether they will have jurisdiction over buffer compliance. Due to the veto of the 2016 Tax bill, a $10 million provision for aid to counties to implement and enforce the buffer law remains unsettled. New efforts are underway this session to provide the financial aid for implementation and enforcement, however it is most likely a tax bill would not be signed into law until later this session. Several legislators indicated there were enough concerns that enforcement of buffers may need to be delayed due to discrepancies with the buffer maps and a lack of funding support for landowners.
Cooperative Network stated during testimony support for a suite of alternative practices to enable farmers to comply with the buffer law. Among the examples mentioned were grassed waterways, ditches adjacent to fields with negative slope, and a buffer combined with conservation tillage. In addition, local discretion by a county board and/or soil and water conservation district would be necessary for farmers to have their specific alternative practice approved.
Cooperative Network also stated during testimony in the belief that elected officials, on the state and federal levels, as well as regulators at all levels of government, should collaborate with cooperatives and their member-owners on regulations that are not overly restrictive and that promote the production of food, fiber and energy. We mentioned our support for maintaining and improving the quality of the state’s waters, and that when implementing any state water quality program, cost-sharing resources should be provided to farmers who install buffer strips.
The 2015 law required that buffers with a 50-foot average width and a 30-foot minimum width on public waters be in place by Nov. 1, 2017. For public drainage systems, buffers widths of a 16.5-foot minimum are required by Nov. 1, 2018. Legislation supported by Cooperative Network was signed into law during the 2016 session designed to provide buffer clarification to landowners, operators and government officials. Major provisions in the 2016 bill state that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) cannot map or require buffers on private ditches and that the existing public waters inventory must be used when mapping public waters. The law also states that landowner compensation will be based on the value of the land before the buffers were installed, as well as establishes a state-funded aid program for local units of government to implement buffer requirements. Since the buffer map was released in March of last year, the DNR has received more than thousands of comments or change requests and has made thousands of map updates.