Shoreline buffer law a good start to protect state waters

In January of this year Gov. Mark Dayton surprised a lot of people, including his cabinet, when he announced his intent to advance a legislative initiative for major changes to the requirements and enforcement of Minnesota’s shoreline restrictions.

As the governor correctly pointed out, the state’s shoreline laws, which were designed to be implemented and enforced by counties, cities and other local governments, were frequently confusing in their application, and largely unenforced. The governor espoused a uniform 50-foot buffer of perennial vegetation on all lakes, rivers and streams to be enforced by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He argued that the beauty of his proposal was in its simplicity.

There had been two prominent calls for new buffer regulations just prior to the governor’s surprising announcement. The first came from the state’s Clean Water Council, whose members are largely appointed by the governor. The council, in its December 2014 report to the Minnesota Legislature observed that “… buffers of perennial grasses and vegetation can reduce sediment, phosphorous and nitrogen significantly.” It recommended that the state do more to see that buffers along public waters and ditches be maintained.

Also in December, participants in Gov. Dayton’s Minnesota Pheasant Summit assembled in response to a rapidly declining pheasant habitat and population in Minnesota, identified as a top priority the need for establishment and enforcement of shoreline and ditch buffers.

Science has long demonstrated the benefits of vegetative buffers to water quality, aquatic habitat and wildlife. They serve to reduce and slow surface water runoff, which holds more soil on the land and out of the water body; they retain and filter pollutants; they stabilize banks and reduce erosion and they reduce nutrient loading in the water body through plant uptake.

Gov. Dayton is to be commended for raising this issue to the visibility it deserves. While the Legislature did give the buffer initiative considerable attention this past session, many were surprised that something this complex and controversial resulted in enactment of new law less than five months after the initiative was announced.

It was not, however, as simple nor as uniform as the governor proposed; nor is it to be uniformly enforced by the DNR, but rather still locally enforced.

The new buffer law provides that the DNR map all the covered water bodies, which include lakes, rivers and streams, public ditches and private ditches that flow into public ditches. All riparian lands that border on lakes, rivers and streams will be required to have buffers averaging 50 feet, with 30-foot minimums. Ditches will be required to have 16.5-foot buffers on either side.

There are exceptions for agricultural properties if approved by the state Board of Water and Soil Resources as meeting certain criteria.

The DNR will supply maps to the county Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The SWCDs will follow through with the counties, cities and other local governments having jurisdiction. The SWCDs have the responsibility to assure compliance and issue fines.

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources is tasked with oversight of the SWCDs and can withhold state funds from any conservation district not performing its responsibilities. Required buffers are to be in place on public waters by Nov. 1, 2017, and ditches by Nov. 1, 2018.

Cynics observe that we have had very poor compliance with buffer laws that have been in effect for decades in large part because they were entirely dependent on local implementation and local enforcement; now we have a new law largely dependent on local implementation and local enforcement. They ask why we should expect different outcomes.

We are more hopeful. Gov. Dayton clearly has raised the awareness of the importance of buffers for improving water quality. The Legislature has responded and reinforced that importance.

Now it will be up to those local governments to follow through and see that the buffer requirements are implemented and enforced. Most importantly, it will be up to all of us to hold our governments at all levels accountable. The health of our waters, now and in the future, depends on it.

– An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board