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Bill called ‘clear message’ to farmers on concerns over buffer requirements

Millions of dollars to fund the state’s buffer implementation efforts were approved by the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee Thursday in a bill that would also loosen buffer requirements on thousands of miles of land.

Sponsored by Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska), HF1466 would appropriate $10 million annually, beginning with aids payable in 2017, for counties and watershed districts to assume control of buffer implementation and enforcement on public waterways and ditches. The appropriation was originally contained in last year’s vetoed tax bill.

Payments could not be less than $50,000 or exceed $200,000. Watershed districts or counties would not receive the money unless they chose to accept jurisdiction for enforcing buffer requirements.

The committee adopted a delete-all amendment that included the appropriation and would also make several other changes to the buffer law, originally passed in 2015.

The amended bill was approved on a 14-9 roll-call vote and referred to the House Taxes Committee. The companion, SF1395, is sponsored by Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) and awaits action by the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.

“I don’t look at this as wholesale changes, I look at this as clarification of the existing law,” Torkelson said. “I’m really not trying to derail this initiative, I’m trying to put it in a fashion that it actually can work.”

Changes to the buffer requirements

The bill would make changes to the current buffer requirements and the date they must be ready.

Under current law, buffers or alternative water-quality practices must be in place by Nov. 1, 2017, for public waters, and 12 months later for public drainage systems.

HF1466 would eliminate the 2017 date and make Nov. 1, 2018, the deadline for both. It would also modify the buffer requirements so that 50-foot buffers would be needed on public waters classified as “shoreland,” while public waters without that classification would only need a 16.5-foot buffer.

Torkelson said the biggest complaint he hears from landowners is ditches they’ve always thought were private land being designated as public waters on buffer maps the Department of Natural Resources is creating to implement the law. He said the change would send “a clear message” the Legislature was trying to be fair.

“It’s not my belief that we should be out for a land grab here,” Torkelson said. “This is about improving water quality, not about taking land out of production unnecessarily.”

DNR Assistant Commissioner Sarah Strommen said this change could potentially move 48,000 miles of buffers from the 50-foot category to the 16.5-foot category. She said the change would also make the mapping process more difficult.

Several DFL committee members raised objections to bill provisions, including the impact the shoreland classification change could have on water quality.

Rep. Rick Hansen (DFL-South St. Paul) questioned what he saw as efforts to soften regulations in the 2015 law, but said he wasn’t surprised.

“That’s my expectation of what’s going to happen,” Hansen said. “More and more clarifications that keep making changes to nullify the effect of the law.



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