The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Special Report: Amber Waves to Muddy Waters

December 12, 2011

Day 3: Counties responsible for policing buffer law

When it comes to enforcing the law requiring a 50-foot buffer along streams, rivers and lakes, it falls largely to counties to do the polic­ing.

Virtually none have, but some are starting to.

The reasons for inaction, say county officials, have been a lack of staff and expertise, no easy way to find offenders and no real pressure to crack down.

Some counties say they still lack the manpower, but there is growing pressure to enforce the rules, and new technology — including GIS mapping and aerial photography — makes it easier to locate those out of compliance.

“ We haven’t pushed anything
yet,” said Bruce Johnson, Watonwan County’s environmental services director.

“ We did get the aerial information recently, so we could analyze it. But we have a drastic absence of technical capacity,” noting that because of job vacancies, there are only a couple of people working on environmental and water issues.

“ With small counties like ours, it’s just not easy.”

Michele Stindtman, of Faribault County planning and zoning, said it’s frustrating that enforcement of the law has been mostly ignored.

“It’s somewhat frustrating when even the DNR doesn’t enforce it.”

She said the county is just beginning to develop plans and launch education programs for landowners about buffer and drainage regulations.

“It’s been in state statute a long time.

Landowners should know.

Hopefully the people who are farming too close will get the message that they need to do this or it will be done through enforcement.”

Mark Leiferman, planning and zoning administrator in Waseca County, said they just kicked off a three-year plan to deal with buffer and drainage regulation issues. This past year they held forums to educate farmers on the rules. Beginning next year, anytime any landowner seeks a county permit — for anything from a septic system to a building permit — the county will use the opportunity to check if the property owner is out of compliance with buffer rules and ask them to comply. Beginning in 2013, the county will require they comply with buffer rules before they get a permit for any other projects.

“It’s a process we used in the past for septic compliance and it worked well,” Leiferman said.

He said prior to the past couple of years, it was all but impossible for the county to identify those out of compliance across the county.

“A couple of years ago, we didn’t even have GIS data. The tools are getting a lot better.”

Kathy Brockway of Le Sueur County said they so far haven’t made any plan regarding buffers.

“ We haven’t really discussed that at all.”

Mandy Landkamer, director of Nicollet County Environmental Services, said there’s been some discussion about buffer strips, but no plans are in place to begin identifying landowners out of compliance.

She said they’ve focused on managing feedlots in the county to prevent manure that is injected in or spread on farm fields from running off into waterways.

“ The buffers are good, but through our feedlot program we try to catch things before (manure) gets (near waterways).”

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Special Report: Amber Waves to Muddy Waters