The State of Minnesota has laid out the water quality requirements clearly in their Minnesota Buffer Law. The buffer law requires landowners with land along public waters (rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands) to install a 50-foot buffer of perennial vegetation and a 16.5-foot buffer along all public drainage systems. The law also allows for a combination of practices to be used to sufficiently meet water quality goals. If that happens, a buffer may not be needed. The intent of the Minnesota law is to improve water quality.
I am on record saying that regulation agriculture cannot solve the water quality issue. And I am not a huge fan of buffers, which are designed to trap soil just before it reaches a waterbody. I believe each farm is unique and we can’t fix every erosion problem with the same solution. But I think the Minnesota approach is practical and they got it right. With their buffer law, landowners still have a choice.
From a public policy point of view, Minnesota’s decision is strategic, giving landowners every opportunity to implement farm-specific water protection practices, such as no-till. However, if landowners elect not to implement those alternative practices, the legislated buffer becomes necessary. Effectively, Minnesota has given landowners options, but if landowners reject these options, they are expected to use the stream-edge buffer as a last line of defense. Yes, the law could have required the farmer to install conservation practices higher on the landscape, but as I see it that would only be more intrusive on the farmer’s rights. I don’t think the public has the right to tell a farmer how to farm, but I do think the public has the right to expect clean water. And buffers help clean up the water by trapping sediment just before it hits the water.
I mentioned that the buffer law allows choice. The Minnesota legislature brilliantly provided for alternative practices that have the ability to achieve the same environmental outcomes. If the farmer doesn’t like filter strips that is fine; he can choose another option that provides equal benefits. With alternative practices, farmers can avoid the one size fits all mentality and choose to implement practices that fit their landscape. I think most farmers would agree choice is more palatable.
Again, I am not sold on regulatory efforts but if you are going to regulate, I don’t know how you do it better than the State of Minnesota. It is difficult to craft a good conservation program, but hats off to Minnesota for writing rules that are robust and flexible. This is precision conservation at its best. Stay tuned for more to come on Minnesota’s alternative practices.