In the final budget negotiations, it’s likely that a major expansion of taxpayer-funded conservation easements will occur with support from House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook. In the Star Tribune today, “The legislative leaders said Dayton was likely to see at least one high-profile request fulfilled: his proposal to require some form of buffer strips around bodies of water to protect water quality.”
The Governor’s plan to implement state-enforced 50 foot buffers on all Minnesota waterways, has been an issue that Alpha News has been watching closely from the start of the legislative session. We reported in February that the plan had early, enthusiastic support from Rep Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, Chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance committee.
While much of the focus has been on farmers, the law as-written doesn’t make that stipulation. The bill’s language calls for the plan to be implemented on “all perennial waters” which means much more than just agricultural land. Senator Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, warned about the broader implications of the plan, telling the Litchfield Independent, “This could mean a lot more than agricultural land as written,” Newman said. “You could be talking about a home by the river, or the land around Lake Minnetonka. Multiple types arguably meet the definition … both developed and undeveloped.”
According to the Governor’s office, “The new law would provide a uniform buffer requirement across all of Minnesota’s waters, regardless of their classification or designation. It would require that landowners maintain a 50-foot buffer around lakes, rivers, and streams on their land. Landowners would be given a period of time to work with their local Soil and Water Conservation District to install any needed buffers, and they would be eligible for financial assistance to do so.”
Per a January 16, 2015 Pioneer Press article, the Governor “envisions DNR aircraft flying over private lands and issuing fines to landowners not in compliance.” Current law leaves enforcement up to individual counties.
The Governor had allocated $20 million in his initial budget proposal to pay farmers for the land, stating that the remaining compensation would come from federal programs. The total cost to bring in an additional 125,000 acres under state-control is unknown, but could be staggering.
Per the Litchfield Independent, McLeod SWCD uses Reinvest in Minnesota’s various programs to compensate farmers who put in buffer strips on their land. Similarly, the Conservation Reserve Program rents land to be used as buffer strips. In McLeod County, farmers earn between $6,466 and $7,521 per acre in these programs, with the low being in Acoma Township and the high in Round Grove Township. Using the number of $7,000 per acre, the total potential taxpayer-funded payout for the 125,000 acres would be $875 million. Will a regular landowner along a stream, lake shore, or riverfront property be reimbursed as well? Nobody knows.
The state administers multiple programs whereby taxpayers fund payments to landowners for protected easements. It’s a a challenge to decipher the many programs being funded at the legislature. The current legacy finance bill in conference committee allots $17.5 million to acquire permanent easements and fund the riparian buffer program, $33.5 million for the Board of Water and Soil Resources for grants to establish riparian buffers, and at least $ 16 miilion more to ensure compliance with current buffers
According to the National Conservation Easement Database, Minnesota has a total of 838,522 acres of land protected by easements. (click below to enlarge) Neighboring state Wisconsin has 380,849, South Dakota 459,643, and North Dakota 377,279. Dayton’s plan to add 125,000 acres would bring Minnesota near Colorado’s 1,047,516 acres, a state with roughly 10 million acres more than Minnesota.
Environmentalists believe the expansion is needed to protect Minnesota water quality. But DNR-funded drones flying over private property to enforce 50 foot buffers is undoubtedly an Orwellian prospect and one that will require hundreds of millions of tax dollars to implement.