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This file photo from 2016 shows a waterway north of Worthington with a 66-foot grassed buffer to protect the waters and filter out sediment coming from adjacent farm fields. (Julie Buntjer / Daily Globe)

Weather woes in 2018 keep some landowners from buffer compliance

WORTHINGTON — A majority of Nobles County landowners are now in compliance with Minnesota’s buffer law, having seeded perennial grasses, alfalfa or an alternative practice on land that abuts streams, waterways and open ditches.

The law, enacted in June 2015 in hopes of improving water quality across the state, requires landowners to establish perennial vegetation of up to 50 feet along lakes, rivers and streams, and buffers of 16½ feet along ditches. These buffers help filter out phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment that may otherwise be carried into Minnesota waters during rain events and snowmelt.

The deadline for establishing buffers along streams was Nov. 1, 2017. However, landowners could get an extension to Nov. 1, 2018 if they wanted to instead install an alternative practice. Landowners with open ditches running or along their through their property had until Nov. 1, 2018 to be in compliance.

As of last week, Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District Administrator John Shea reported that 105 extensions were given from the Nov. 1, 2017 deadline.

“That’s a small drop in the bucket of the original 1,583,” he noted. “I’m very happy with the numbers we have.”

Many of the landowners who received extensions have yet to comply with the state’s buffer law.

Blame it, for the most part, on Mother Nature.

“With the change in staff (former Farm Bill Technician Austin DeWitte left, and new tech Catelyn LeCour began working in Nobles County in late October) and inclement weather in 2018, not a lot (of buffers) got planted,” Shea said. “They did set aside those acres — they didn’t plant corn and soybeans — but they also didn’t get grass established.

“I was hoping to take about 50 more off that (non-compliant) list this fall, but with the weather we didn’t,” he added.

Shea said the landowners who are working with the SWCD are considered compliant for now, but his office will be checking with them come spring.

In Nobles County, the board of commissioners elected to work with the SWCD on landowner compliance, rather than have the state come in and enforce the buffer law.

“Instead of sending letters now (regarding compliance), when nothing can really happen, we’ll be working with the county to send letters out in the early spring,” Shea said. Landowners still have 11 months, once they receive a letter, to become compliant with the law before financial penalties can be assessed.

While he’d like to see 100 percent compliance with the law, Shea said some landowners still don’t agree with law and therefore have not established buffers.

“I think there was more hold-out with the anticipation of a governor changing,” Shea said. “With a Democrat coming in, I don’t see any changes to the current law. If anything, maybe it will lax a little bit.”

Shea said compliance will go more smoothly if landowners are willing to work with the SWCD office.

“If it’s their plan and we work on it together, it comes out better than me going out and saying, ‘You have to do this,’” he said. “We want people to be aware that it is their land, but it is everybody’s water. The water flows off your land; we just want to be responsible for what we can be — being neighborly in cleaning the water.”

Shea anticipates a busy spring for landowners who have yet to seed their buffers. The local SWCD office has two drills available for seeding.

“If farmers have not called the office — if they want a site visit or think they’re compliant — please call,” Shea said. “We’ll do site visits when weather permits.”

During site visits, Shea said his staff will not only be looking at buffers, but at entire fields, in case there are opportunities for landowners to do other practices.

“When Catelyn goes on site, she’ll be looking also at where are there gullies that may be moving sediment into the stream; where are waterways that maybe need to be re-established,” he said. “We need to address the whole issue and truly make it a clean water initiative like the buffer law was supposed to be.

“The origination of our office is to help keep the water and soil as healthy as we can,” he added. “That’s still the core of our job.”

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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