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MN county getting state aid to enforce buffer law

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Minn. -- Douglas County will soon receive funding to help enforce the state's law requiring buffer strips of vegetation between farmland and waterways.

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Craig Haseman, an Evansville farmer, stands in the buffer strip already in place on his land. Lake Amos is on one side and his soybean field is on the other side. (Echo Press file photo)

DOUGLAS COUNTY, Minn. - Douglas County will soon receive funding to help enforce the state's law requiring buffer strips of vegetation between farmland and waterways.

The Douglas County commissioners approved a resolution at their regular meeting Tuesday morning reassuring the state that Douglas County will carry out the provisions of the law.

By following the rules, preliminary estimates show that Douglas County will receive $79,000 in 2018 and $99,000 in 2019, according to Dave Rush, Land and Resource Management director for the county.

The Omnibus Tax and Natural Resources Bills, when combined, included $18 million in riparian buffer aid to counties, such as Douglas, and watersheds that elected local enforcement of the buffer law. According to the law, was which passed in 2015, buffers, or strips of grass or vegetation, need to be an average of 50 feet wide, minimum of 30 feet, on public waters, which is determined by the Department of Natural Resources. In addition, buffers on public drainage systems must be a minimum of 16.5 feet, as determined by the local drainage authority.

Rush said in a memo to the commissioners that since the law was enacted, the Land and Resource Management office, the Soil and Water Conservation District and the county ag and drainage inspector have been working cooperatively to ensure Douglas County is on track to be in compliance with the requirements of the law.

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The soil and water district has, in essence, been in charge, while the land and resource office does the enforcement, Rush told the commissioners. He also said that the funding will help with enforcement, but that enforcement could mean several different things. Education and technical assistance will be the best tools to encourage compliance, Rush said, adding that local control is better.

"If the law is in the books, then we need to enforce it," Rush said. "If we don't do it, then the (Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources) will do it and we don't want that."

The county will be drafting its own ordinance for the enforcement of the buffer law, Rush told commissioners, and that it will be modeled after the state's ordinance. His staff has been working with other counties to draft a model ordinance that can be used by other counties and acceptable by the state board. The county will need to adopt the ordinance for riparian buffers before Nov. 1.

In his memo to the commissioners, Rush provided a summary of the compliance process, which included:

• The Soil and Water Conservation District will lead the effort to work with landowners to implement the buffer strips. It will also be the technical arm of the process by determining if landowners are in compliance, making recommendations and assisting in sign-ups for cost-share programs and determining and certifying alternative practices.. Rush said that every effort will be made to educate, encourage and entice landowners to meet the deadlines for compliance with the buffer law. The deadline is July 1, 2018 for public waterways (rivers, stream, wetlands, etc.). The deadline for county ditches, however, is Nov. 1, 2018.

• The land and resource department will take the lead in initiating enforcement of the buffer law. The process to enforce can be by criminal prosecution through the county attorney or administrative penalty order. Both processes can be carried out locally.

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