The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 12, 2011

Special Report: Day 3: Many county rivers, streams and lakes without buffer zone

By Tim Krohn
Free Press Staff Writer

The state regula­tions are clear: If you have land in agricultural use along a stream, river or lake, you need to have at least a 50-foot grass buffer strip along the river bank or edge of the lake to reduce erosion, runoff and pollution.

But enforcement of the rule
has been nearly nonexistent. Many counties say they simply don’t have the staff or resources to enforce the rules and opposition from landowners can make it an issue elected county commissioners would rather avoid. Still, some larger counties are taking action, helped by new technology that makes it easier to find those not following the rules.

“ There is a lot of shoreline in the county. A lot of it’s not accessible. It’s on private land and there aren’t roads to it,” said Julie Conrad, Blue Earth County’s land use and natural resources planner.

The county, in conjunction with the local Soil and Water Conservation District, turned to GIS mapping — including new high- quality aerial photos of the entire county — to first locate all shorelines and then see who was out of compliance.

The county identified 368 miles of rivers and streams, 186 miles of unnamed streams and 43 lakes.

There also are channelized streams where landowners dug out shallow streams so they would carry more drainage water.

Most counties don’t know how many channelized streams on private land exist as most were done many decades ago prior to permitting requirements and over­sight.

The good news, Conrad said, is that compliance is relatively high with an estimated 94 percent of agricul­tural shoreline protected by a buffer. That’s a far higher
rate of compliance than a few other counties that have made an effort to track buffer strips.

Part of the reason for better compliance is the steep ravines that lead up to many farm fields in this area.

“Our streams are so heavily wooded and deeply incised, so getting farm equipment close to the tops of those river banks is dangerous so most farmers stay away,” Conrad said.

The land not in compliance in the county is generally where the stream banks aren’t so steep, she said.

About 450 property owners have been identified as needing to establish a buffer strip with most of the needed buffer areas being less than an acre in size. In total, about 400 acres of land need to be seeded into grass buffer strips.

Once identified by the county as being out of compliance, the SWCD staff takes over and contacts landowners. The county, not the SWCD, is responsible for enforcement, said Jerad Bach, manager of the Blue Earth County SWCD.

“ We don’t mandate anything; it’s all voluntary,” Bach said. “ We have the history of working with landowners on cost- share programs for soil erosion, so that’s where we come in.”

It will eventually be up to the County Board of Commissioners to enforce the buffer strip rules on any landowners who don’t come into compliance.

Bach said they’ve so far sent letters to 76 non- compliant landowners and have heard back from 26. About half of those said they plan to either seed the buffers in at their own cost or sign up for the Conservation Reserve Program, which subsidizes landowners for protecting sensitive land.

“ We’re not trying to go out there and say, ‘ You’re a bad person, you’re out of compliance,’” Bach said.

“ We just want to inform them and work with them.” So far, only five counties in the state have taken active steps to enforce the state- mandated buffer rules. Dodge, Grant and Olmsted counties have already completed enforcement while Blue Earth and Winona counties are in the process.