Dennis Anderson
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Over many years, such platitudes are what conservationists have come to expect from a cascade of Minnesota politicians and key policymakers. Busy as these leaders are, they oftentimes lack sufficient information about conservation to muster much more than bromides. So they wing it.

Keep up the good work. We all want clean water and healthy lands. Thanks for coming.

Historically, recipient-conservationists of this claptrap, concerned as they might be for the degradation of the state’s wild places and wild critters, rise up not to protest such patronage but instead often to applaud — happy enough simply to have their interests validated by someone at the top of the Capitol food chain.

Never mind that very little except for exhausted hot air actually transpires from these exchanges. It’s just fun just to get together. Name tags at 9. The governor speaks at lunchtime. Drinks at 5.

Repeat.

Year after year.

Then, in January, Dayton threw a wrench in the works, opting in his speech for substance over schmooze, and announcing he would seek from the Legislature passage of a bill requiring that most state waterways be buffered by grass or grasslike perennials measuring 50 feet wide.

The intent, the governor said, would be to intensify cleanup of the thousands of creeks, rivers and drainage ditches that course through Minnesota farmlands, many of which periodically carry with them heavy sediment loads and a toxic brew of fertilizers and other chemicals.

Evidence of the state’s water problems is easy to find.

• Many farmland wells are contaminated with nitrates that can be traced to fertilizers applied to crops such as corn and soybeans.

• Stream and river siltation that impedes navigation and/or diminishes fish habitat is commonplace, from the headwaters of the Minnesota River to the Mississippi River near Lake City.

• Water-level spikes in southern and western Minnesota wetlands and shallow lakes occur frequently after heavy rainfalls, in part because of farmland tiling. The fast rise and fall of water can wipe out aquatic vegetation benefiting ducks and other wildlife.

• The long-term viability of some aquifers is being challenged by higher usage demands of cities and farmer-irrigators.

• • •

Conservationists in attendance in January could hardly believe what Dayton said.

For many years, they, along with clean-water advocates and game- and songbird proponents, decried the lack of enforcement of existing waterway buffer directives. Counties had the option of enforcing compliance or not, and some didn’t.

Dayton’s plan took a harder line. The DNR would enforce his proposed 50-foot buffers, the governor said, adding that landowner compensation for the loss of approximately 6 acres per mile of buffer could come, in whole or in part, from federal and state conservation programs.

Agricultural interests — taken by surprise by Dayton’s announcement, as everyone was — soon suggested reasons the idea wouldn’t work. “One size fits all’’ 50-foot buffers weren’t practical, they said.

Now, four months later, against long odds — given the power of agriculture in this state — Gov. Dayton has his buffer initiative.

Kind of.

Meaning it’s not exactly what he proposed. The DNR won’t enforce it, for example, counties will. Also, while some new buffers likely will be 50 feet wide, if not wider, others won’t be, and won’t have to be.

That said, passing buffer legislation in a single session, and setting in motion the establishment of substantially more grass on the landscape while shoring up additional ditches and stream sides, are accomplishments of historical proportion, and Dayton is due credit for the idea and for his persistence in seeing it through.

Ditto Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, and Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, chief sponsors of the legislation.

Yet a sizable hurdle remains to be overcome: On Saturday, Dayton vetoed the bill containing the buffer language. The agriculture and environment measure he sent back to the Legislature bore too many anti-environment provisions, the governor said, and even with the buffer language, he couldn’t sign it.

Another problem lurking in a special session: Funds to help implement the buffer plan were in the Legacy bill, which didn’t get a Senate vote Monday night before the Legislature adjourned.

So in the special session, that bill also will require review and passage, if the governor’s buffer idea is to become a reality.

Dayton had plenty of support from conservationists when he vetoed the agriculture and environment bill, notwithstanding the risk the action might pose to prospective buffers. The Minnesota Environmental Partnership, among others, backed the idea, and they were buoyed Saturday by a letter Dayton sent to lawmakers saying he wants buffers included in a reconsidered agriculture and environment bill.

Assuming that happens, or even if it doesn’t, when Dayton next steps to a podium to speak, conservationists likely will listen intently, hoping he again opts for substance over schmooze.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com