Minnesota farmers will be given extra time and in some cases financial help to comply with the state's buffer law that requires them to plant perennial vegetation between crops and creeks.
The changes were included in bills signed Tuesday by Gov. Mark Dayton.
But farm groups say the changes don't go far enough, and environmental leaders object to how the measure would be funded.
The law, passed in 2015, seeks to improve water quality by requiring buffer strips along ditches and waterways to help slow down and filter runoff from farm fields that might contain sediment, phosphorus, pesticides and other chemicals.
It was set to go into effect Nov. 1, and requires strips at least 30 feet wide and an average of 50 feet from public streams, creeks, rivers and lakes, or an alternative method of conservation that provides equal or better water quality benefits. It also applies to public ditches that feed into waterways, and requires 16.5-foot buffers along them to be planted by Nov. 1, 2018.
Farmers and farm groups complained that the deadlines were unrealistic, but Dayton considers the law one of his signature accomplishments and pushed back against attempts to delay or weaken it.
In the end, lawmakers and the governor's office agreed on a plan that allows farmers to apply for an automatic waiver that gives them until July 1, 2018, to install buffers or alternative measures along the public waterways. The deadline for ditches was not changed.
The extension is more of a grace period than a delay, said John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, which is responsible for administering the law. Some farmers may face weather conditions, crop harvests or other circumstances that may make it difficult to install buffers by this year's Nov. 1 deadline, he said, so they can explain their reasons and apply for a waiver.
"We ended up with more options and more flexibility, and both of those things are good," Jaschke said.
Based on county and state estimates, he said, 91.5 percent of the public waterways in Minnesota already have adequate buffer protection, either because vegetation was already there or producers have planted it in recent years.
Joe Smentek, director of public affairs for the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, said he's frustrated with the idea of a waiver system, which seems inefficient and requires farmers to apply for an extension that might not be granted. Many producers are still confused about what they are supposed to do to comply with the law, he said, and even whether their land is affected based on the public waters maps published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"Our group wasn't looking for five- or 10-year delay," Smentek said. "We were looking for a one-year delay to digest the maps and the alternatives to buffers."
Besides the deadlines, farmers have also objected to the cost of taking land out of production for buffers without compensation. Some have called it a land grab because they are responsible for installing the vegetation, managing it and continuing to pay property taxes on the land.
In some cases, landowners have been able to cushion the cost by enrolling buffer land in federal programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program that will compensate them. But not all land is eligible, and some programs have long waiting lists.
Legislators decided to take funds from other state programs, including nearly $22 million from the Legacy Amendment's Clean Water Fund, to help local soil and water conservation districts work with farmers on conservation programs that can include buffer strips.
Jaschke said $5 million of that amount would be for cost-share projects to help farmers buy seed for buffers or pursue alternative methods, and another $16.25 million would help fund conservation programs. Other bills allocate $15.7 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, $19.5 million from the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and $10 million in the bonding bill to increase money for habitat and conservation, some of which could be tapped by farmers setting aside land for buffers. The land will need to be eligible for those programs and farmers will need to compete successfully to enroll in the programs.
The funding changes are contained in three additional bills sent to the governor.
Harold Wolle, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said that enrolling in conservation programs is not the best option for some farmers, and can be complicated with long-term implications.
For one of the programs, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), the farmland is eventually placed in a permanent easement, he said, which his organization opposes.
"We don't see CREP as an option for farmers to be compensated," Wolle said. The law needs much more compensation in different forms, he said, and it also needs to address farmers' concerns about real estate tax relief and some private ditches that are treated under the law as public waterways that need wider buffers.
Trevor Russell, water program director for Friends of the Mississippi River, said that providing compensation for buffers from the Clean Water Fund, directed to farmers through local soil and water conservation districts, happened at the same time that lawmakers reduced conservation district budgets by $22 million.
"This has become a $22 million raid, which is 10 percent of the Clean Water Fund, for something that in the past has been paid for in the general fund," Russell said. "They're using buffers as cover to do that, and it's very worrisome and dubiously constitutional."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388