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.