Buffer Initiative: It Will Help Protect Water & is Flexible Enough to Meet Farmer Needs

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By George Boody

Governor Mark Dayton announced in January his proposal to require an additional 125,000 acres of perennial vegetation along lakes, rivers and streams. There is a long history of utilizing such living borders to filter out fertilizers and herbicides, while fortifying streambanks and reducing the amount of eroded soil that ends up in the water. While not a silver bullet, establishing buffer protections between our crop fields and our water is, as LSP farmer-member Darrel Mosel says, “ …one of the most significant farmland stewardship initiatives for water quality and wildlife habitat proposed by a Minnesota governor in decades.…”

The Land Stewardship Project decided to support this proposal after talking with leaders who are farmer-members. As proposed, the initiative emphasizes stewardship of land and water, is supported by sound science and is flexible enough to provide options for sizing buffers appropriately and to allow them to be used as working farmland.

Buffer Strips 101

Vegetative buffers, sometimes called filter strips, are typically from 16.5 to 120 feet wide. These strips are designed with perennial vegetation such as grass to intercept runoff that also may carry sediment, nutrients and other contaminants into sensitive areas such as streams, lakes, wetlands or drainage ditches. Fifty-foot buffers are already required on “public waters” in Minnesota’s agricultural areas by shore land management rules. Several reports have been done on compliance and found that a sizeable number of landowners have required buffers in place, but others do not. Some counties have high rates of compliance. In Dakota County, for example, 99 percent of the Department of Natural Resources-designated shore land has a 50-foot buffer.

Governor Dayton’s initiative calls for uniform enforcement of buffer requirements and would extend 50-foot strips to perennial waters not now included in the state’s current inventory of public waters. It would not change Minnesota ditch law. Perennial waters are waters having a defined bed and bank, and have flowing water during the majority of the growing season in most years. A recent Board of Water and Soil Resources assessment showed that this may apply to about 64 percent of streams in http://landstewardshipproject.org/cmsimage/1495/large67 counties that are planted to more than 30 percent cropland.

The Science Behind Buffer Strips

Extensive monitoring of established buffers, experiments with buffer configurations and modeling have all shown that these living filters can significantly reduce sediment, nutrients and other contaminants in surface runoff from crop fields. The efficiency of this filtering depends on such characteristics as soils, management, slope and size of the field and buffer, the intended contaminants to be filtered or trapped and intensity of rainfall events. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) considers buffers a “Core 4” practice that has “conservation impact and can be implemented on almost every farm.” The Minnesota NRCS has specific designs for buffers that are between 30 and 160 feet, depending on resource concerns and site characteristics.

Here’s a partial rundown of why buffers are one go-to practice for cleaning up water in rural areas:

  • A Nebraska study found that doubling the width of a buffer from a little less than 25 feet to almost 50 feet significantly increased infiltration and dilution of runoff. Increasing the width of the buffer cut the amount of nitrogen and total dissolved phosphorous making its way to the water by 15 percent, and the amount of total suspended solids — defined as the amount of solids in water that can be trapped by a filter — by 6 percent. Volume of outflow was also reduced significantly with increased width, contributing to the reduction of contaminants making their way to the water.
  • An Environmental Protection Agency review found that when buffers are at least 164 feet in width, nitrogen removal efficiency is consistently around 75 percent. Efficiency was greater with subsurface than surface flow and with forested versus grassed buffers.
  • Researchers in Iowa simulated various buffer widths based on different slopes (2 percent and 10 percent) and soils (silty clay loam or fine sandy loam) and found that the width of filter strip required to achieve a given level of trapping efficiency is variable. Filter strips as narrow as 13 feet were estimated to trap nearly 100 percent of the incoming material in some cases, while 98-foot strips trapped only 10 percent of the load in other situations. Site conditions also influence the relationship between width and trapping efficiency. For example, a filter strip on coarse-textured soil below a disked corn field yielded substantially higher trapping efficiencies for sediment and water than an otherwise similar strip on fine-textured soil below a chisel-plowed corn field. In a follow-up study, researchers found that when water flow off a field is concentrated, the filter needs to be wider at that point to serve as an effective filter.
  • In central Iowa, researchers found that planting just 10 percent to 20 percent of a no-till, corn or soybean field to strips of native prairie cut sediment, total nitrogen and total phosphorous losses by 90 percent. The strips varied in width from 10 to 33 foot wide on the contours and were 121 to 255 feet wide at the foot of the 6 percent to 10 percent slopes studied. The plant density, stiffness of the stems and deep roots helped make these strips effective even when more than nine inches of rain fell in the area during a three-day period in 2010. The strips’ ability to handle heavy precipitation events is key, given that we are experiencing more intense storms that ever in Minnesota and across the Midwest, especially in the spring when row crops are not covering the soil.
  • Conventional filter strips will not reduce tile line flow if the line simply runs under the buffer to a waterway. However, a saturated buffer, where applicable, may enable effective reduction of nitrogen loss by diverting the tile line to flow through the buffer. A study in Iowa with 60-foot strips showed an average nitrate-N concentration reduction of up to 100 percent passing through a buffer root zone. Cost-share funds for such a practice may be available from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In short, buffers, depending on characteristics of the field and the buffer, landowner/farmer goals, applicable regulations and voluntary conservation program requirements, may help landowners:

  • Protect water quality by trapping and filtering overland runoff and subsurface flow of water, sediment, nutrients, pesticides and pathogens.
  • Provide an alternative for marginal, flood-prone cropland along creeks and streams.
  • Eliminate end rows and provide turn areas for machinery.
  • Reduce downstream flooding.
  • Comply with existing drainage ditch laws, shore land rules, and setback requirements for manure application and certain herbicide labels.
  • Provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife.
  • Reinforce and strengthen streambanks that can be prone to eroding and slumping into the water.

The Buffer Initiative is Not ‘One-Size-Fits-All’

The Initiative has been mislabeled as being a “one-size-fits-all” requirement. However, a close reading shows this proposal is actually quite flexible, and fits with LSP farmer-member desires to see conservation programs that allow farmers to adopt water-friendly measures that fit individual situations. A Department of Natural Resources fact sheet on the Buffer Initiative makes it clear that flexibility is built into this proposal: “…the initiative allows landowners to use alternative conservation measures that would provide the equivalent water quality, soil stabilization and habitat benefits.” A sample list of such alternative practices can be found here.

Farmers and landowners would be able to work with their local Soil and Water Conservation District or NRCS office to develop a water-friendly system that is practical for each individual farm and gets the most environmental bang for the buck. Practices farmers already have in place, such as cover cropping, reduced tillage, water and sediment control basins, grassed waterways, organic management, managed rotational grazing, etc., would be taken into account.

And taking such options into consideration can play a key role in protecting our water. For example, scientists from the USDA Agricultural Research Service, the University of Minnesota and Iowa State University found that diversifying a typical corn-soybean rotation with small grains and alfalfa plantings reduced synthetic nitrogen use by 80 to 86 percent compared to the conventional system. After several years, good weed control was possible in the more diverse systems, even though herbicide use was slashed by 86 to 90 percent. This meant potential herbicide-related freshwater toxicity associated with the diverse rotations was eventually 200 times lower compared to the conventional system. Additionally, a more diverse rotation puts more living roots in the ground for longer portions of the year. That means the land is more likely to withstand severe weather events without losing topsoil or crops. Finally, the diverse rotations produced competitive yields and similar—in some cases slightly higher—profits compared to their conventional counterparts.

Making Buffers Pay

The Buffer Initiative has also been labeled a “taking” by opponents because of the concern that it allows the government to force a farmer to replace cash crop acres with “non-productive” land. However, buffers can be an economic benefit on acres that often doesn’t have the best return on investment. Waterlogged land that’s prone to frequent flooding is often less profitable than higher quality fields. If streams and banks are not adequately protected on one farm, it may cause damage to a neighbor’s conservation efforts, as well as increase public costs downstream.

And, there are public resources to assist with the cost of putting in buffers. The Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP) is a voluntary program in which the Farm Service Agency provides participants with rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource-conserving vegetative cover on eligible land. Farmers and/or landowners may enroll such land at any time, rather than waiting for specific sign-up periods. Unlike general sign-ups, there is no bidding and ranking; the land is enrolled automatically if it meets the eligibility criteria. At the end of a contract, landowners have the option of re-enrolling.

One CCRP practice is the CP-21 filter strip, which can be a way for a farmer to get paid to have a buffer between crop fields and water. To be eligible for such a filter strip payment, a farmer or landowner mush have owned or operated the land for at least 12 months and the land must have been planted in an agricultural commodity for four of the previous six years.

There are other federal, state and local programs that provide financial and technical support to landowners who are implementing buffers or alternative water quality practices. Detailed descriptions of these programs are available here.

But even if a farmer is not enrolled in CCRP, the buffer initiative allows haying or grazing and the harvest of perennials for biofuels, which can produce direct income for a working farm. One option for getting economic benefits from buffer strips is to utilize management intensive rotational grazing of cattle and other livestock, which can also be done through contract grazing with a neighbor. Farmers in Minnesota and other Midwestern states have had good results grazing streambanks for short, controlled periods of time, which reduces the presence of invasive species and strengthens grasses and other deep-rooted plants that hold soil in place while filtering out pollutants. This has resulted in more stable streambanks, less sedimentation and overall better water quality. Conservation groups like Trout Unlimited have supported farmers utilizing rotational grazing of streambanks as a way to maintain the health of stream rehabilitation projects.

The Goal

The buffer initiative is an opportunity for farmers to take a proactive approach to improving water quality for the entire state while making a more efficient use of some of their more marginal acres. Buffers are not the only approach needed to protect and restore Minnesota’s streams, rivers and lakes, but they can provide farmers an opportunity to utilize creativity and ingenuity in the ongoing effort to reach a goal that benefits all of us: cleaner water. LSP strongly believes Governor Dayton’s Buffer Initiative is a step in the right direction.

George Boody is the executive director of the Land Stewardship Project. He can be reached at gboody@landstewardshipproject.org or 612-722-6377.

News Watch: Apr. 16

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Development; Energy; Forests; Legislature & Agency; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Transportation; Water;

Agriculture & Food
 
Climate Change
 
Development
 
Energy
 
Forests
 
Legislature & Agency
MinnPost: Dayton on ‘Dayton unbound': Get used to it 
 
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Water

 

 

House Omnibus Bill Undercuts Minnesotans Love of Clean Water

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(April 15, 2015, St. Paul, Minn)  – Today, the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee is hearing public testimony on the Environment and Natural Resources Omnibus Finance bill. The Minnesota Environmental Partnership and its more than 70 member organizations oppose many provisions in this bill that harm the progress Minnesota has made in protecting our Great Outdoors. Below is a statement from Minnesota Environmental Partnership executive director Steve Morse.

“Clean, safe water is central to life in Minnesota – for our families, communities, and economy. Yet the House Environment and Natural Resources Omnibus Finance bill weakens and undermines the efforts underway to protect our most treasured resource,” said Morse. “Provisions within this bill add costly duplicative processes, making it more difficult and slower to adopt and enforce water quality standards. Current basic health standards for our lakes, rivers and streams are suspended and citizens are removed from their role of providing basic oversight of our Pollution Control Agency.

“On top of all this, this House budget bill makes dramatic cuts to Environment and Natural Resources programs in a time when Minnesota is flush with a $2 billion budget surplus. They propose a 13% reduction from the Governor’s budget recommendation and raid another $51 million from other funds dedicated to cleaning up of our water. This amounts to breaking open the state’s piggy bank when the state coffers are overflowing. Minnesotans are clear that they support smart investments in our environment and natural resources. If not now, in a year we have a surplus, when?”

Morse plans to provide testimony on the Environment and Natural Resources Omnibus Finance bill later today.

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About Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Minnesota Environmental Partnership is a coalition of more than 70 environmental, conservation, and civic organizations working together for clean water, clean energy and protection of our Great Outdoors. The Minnesota Environmental Partnership engages state leaders, unites environmental efforts and helps citizens take action for the Minnesota they love.

www.mepartnership.org
www.facebook.com/MinnesotaEnvironmentalPartnership
www.twitter.com/MEPartnership

News Watch: Apr. 13

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Development; Energy; Frac Sand Mining; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; St. Louis River Endangerment; Transportation; Waste & Recycling; Water; Wildlife;

Agriculture & Food
 
Climate Change
 
Development
 
Energy
 
Frac Sand Mining
 
Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Transportation
 
Waste & Recycling
 
Water
 
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Cook County News Herald: Letter: Moose expert should move on 

 

 

MONDAY: Minnesota Environmental Partnership Announcing Sulfide Mining Poll on Press Call

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(April 10, 2015, St. Paul, Minn.) — During a call press call the afternoon of Monday, April 13, 2015, the Minnesota Environmental Partnership (MEP) will present the findings of a new statewide public opinion poll on sulfide mining in Minnesota. Two sulfide mines have been proposed in Northeastern Minnesota, one near the Boundary Waters, and the other near Lake Superior. Sulfide mining has never been done in Minnesota, and elsewhere it has left environmental and economic disaster. Sulfide mining produces toxic waste that permanently pollutes nearby water, which is why it has never been done safely.

What: Press Call announcing Sulfide Mining Poll
Read the Polling Memo from Anzalone Liszt Grove Research

Who: Steve Morse, Executive Director, Minnesota Environmental Partnership; Zac McCrary, Partner, Anzalone Liszt Grove Research                                  

Conference Call:  Monday, April 13, 1:00 PM CT
(877) 229-8493
ID Code — 111915

MEP Executive Director Steve Morse will be joined by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research’s Zac McCrary, who will walk interested parties through the results of the poll. A brief Q&A will follow a 15-25 minute discussion of the poll.

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About Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Minnesota Environmental Partnership is a coalition of more than 70 environmental, conservation, and civic organizations working together for clean water, clean energy and protection of our Great Outdoors. The Minnesota Environmental Partnership engages state leaders, unites environmental efforts and helps citizens take action for the Minnesota they love.

www.facebook.com/MinnesotaEnvironmentalPartnership
www.twitter.com/MEPartnership

Helping Monarchs & Honey Bees at Scale

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Written by Michael Noble, executive director of MEP member group Fresh Energy

We worked for years to ensure Minnesota leads the way in the transition to a clean energy economy. Homegrown renewable energy has led to billions of dollars of private investment, millions of production taxes paid to local communities, and thousands of jobs created across Minnesota.

For years, Minnesota’s leadership in energy has revolved around our significant wind power across south western Minnesota. Now, as prices continue to drop dramatically, we’re in the beginning stages of an exciting solar expansion as well. Thousands of acres of ground mounted solar are set to be installed over the next several years, and that expansion presents a unique opportunity to not only produce homegrown energy, but also to support our water and food supply.

These solar arrays could easily support new habitat for monarch butterflies and honey bees — simply by planting pollinator friendly native grasses rather than layer gravel or dirt. Most developers are used to building solar farms in California and Arizona (desert ground cover). In most cases, shipping in gravel is more expensive than dense beds deep-rooted pollinator plants.

Native grasses planted under solar arrays won’t only benefit the pollinators we rely on for our food supply, they also help keep our water clean by serving as a natural filter for the water in our ecosystem. Sure, we can all also plant some habitat in our backyards to help the cause, but just 2,500 acres of habitat at solar farms is equivalent to 750,000 12×12’ backyard pollinator gardens.  That’s like a pollinator garden in more than half of every single family home in the entire state — and maintaining it for 25 years. This is a simple, cost effective solution that can make a big difference.

With your support, we can create clean, homegrown energy while supporting our pollinators and protecting our water. Go to www.pollinatorpledge.com today to join the campaign by signing our petition to urge solar developers to turn this win-win idea into a reality.

Indiegogo: Monarch & Honeybee Habitat on Solar Farms

 

St. Louis River called one of America’s Most Endangered

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St. Paul, Minn –   Today American Rivers, a national organization focused on protecting U.S. rivers and restoring damaged rivers, named the St. Louis River in Northeastern Minnesota as among America’s Most Endangered Rivers. The impending threat to the St. Louis River cited by American Rivers is pollution from the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel sulfide mine at its headwaters.

“The St. Louis River is at a crossroads,” said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. “We have spent a billion dollars and years cleaning it up and there is still more to do. We can’t afford to go backwards. PolyMet’s proposed copper-nickel sulfide mine poses a threat to the water quality in the St. Louis River and Lake Superior. It’s critical that our state and federal regulators deny permits for mining plans that do not protect the St. Louis River.”

Pollution from PolyMet Mining’s proposed mine would threaten human health, wild rice, and the economic development being spurred by a cleaner St. Louis River. Data in PolyMet’s mine plan show ongoing water treatment would be required long after the mining stops – for 500 years or more.

“The technology to fully protect our clean water for future generations doesn’t exist,” said Andrew Slade, northeastern program coordinator for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. “Even the most advanced water treatment does no good if water can’t be captured and treated. No operation of this kind has operated and closed without polluting nearby lakes, rivers, or groundwater. It’s not worth the high risk.”

A 2013 study by the Minnesota Department of Health found that one in 10 infants in the Lake Superior region is born with unsafe levels of mercury, a potent neurotoxin that can cause damage to the nervous system and developmental disabilities in children. Pollution from PolyMet would increase the risk of mercury-contaminated fish in the St. Louis River, the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior and the entire Great Lakes system, and an important regional fishery. Sulfate pollution also threatens wild rice, Minnesota’s state grain and a critical resource for the Ojibwe people.

“Sulfide mining in a water-rich environment like Minnesota is a high-risk gamble, and one we don’t need to take,” said Morse. “We need to protect our water, our families’ health, our wildlife, and taxpayer resources from pollution and harm caused by sulfide mining.”

Read more about the St. Louis River’s American Rivers Most Endangered Rivers designation: www.americanrivers.org/stlouis

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About Minnesota Environmental Partnership
Minnesota Environmental Partnership is a coalition of more than 70 environmental, conservation, and civic organizations working together for clean water, clean energy and protection of our Great Outdoors. The Minnesota Environmental Partnership engages state leaders, unites environmental efforts and helps citizens take action for the Minnesota they love.

www.mepartnership.org
www.facebook.com/MinnesotaEnvironmentalPartnership
www.twitter.com/MEPartnership

News Watch: Apr. 6

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Climate Change; Energy; Frac Sand Mining; Fracking; Land; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Toxics; Transportation; Water; Wildlife; 

Agriculture & Food
 
Climate Change
 
Energy
 
Frac Sand Mining
 
Fracking
 
Land
 
Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Toxics
 
Transportation
 
Water
 
Wildlife
 

News Watch: Apr. 2

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Today’s Topics: Agriculture & Food; Biofuels; Climate Change; Energy & Efficiency; Frac Sand Mining; Land; Mining; Oil & Pipelines; Sustainability; Parks & Trails; Rules & Regulations; Transportation; Waste & Recycling; Water; Wildlife;

Agriculture & Food
 
Biofuels
 
Climate Change
 
Energy & Efficiency
Duluth News Tribune: Reader’s View: Much needs to be done on clean energy plan
 
Frac Sand Mining
 
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Mining
 
Oil & Pipelines
 
Sustainability
 
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Politics in Minnesota: Housing goals set for Southwest line 
 
Waste & Recycling
Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal: Grease-to-biodiesel truck startup raises nearly $1M 
 
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Deal Forged on Bioeconomy Legislation

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MINNEAPOLIS (April 2, 2015) – Biobased industry, agriculture, and environmental interests reached agreement this week on legislation that would create production-based incentives for renewable chemicals, advanced biofuels and biomass thermal energy, and the groups are urging the Minnesota legislature to pass the legislation, as amended.

“The agreement on this legislation is significant because it demonstrates that we can have rural economic development and clean air and clean water in Minnesota.  These are values broadly supported by Minnesotans from all walks of life and from all interest groups involved in this agreement,” said Great Plains Institute Vice President Brendan Jordan.

After more than a year of active dialogue, the groups – the Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota and the Minnesota Environmental Partnership – reached the agreement, which relates specifically to parts of the legislation dealing with advanced biofuels projects that utilize crop residues. The Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota is coordinated by the Great Plains Institute. The Institute and the Minnesota Environmental Partnership worked together to broker this agreement.

“Its important that when cellulosic biofuels come to Minnesota, we do it right,” said Steve Morse, Executive Director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of more than 70 environmental and conservation groups in the state. “By producing advanced biofuels using perennial plants and cover crops we are able to diversify our agricultural landscape with crops that help clean up our water while providing improved habitat. As the bill is amended, it is a clean water bill.”

The agreement includes requirements for ramping-up perennial biomass use over a specified time-period, adds detail and stringency to the development of “responsible sourcing planning”, and establishes a new program that would provide producers payment incentives to establish perennial crops.

The new requirements only impact advanced biofuel projects that would use crop residues as a feedstock. Advanced biofuel projects from sugar, starch, or wood, and all renewable chemical and biomass thermal energy projects are not impacted by the new requirements.

“This deal strikes a good balance. It works because everyone gets something they want. This clears the path for some early adopters to get started on their projects right away,” said Thom Petersen, Government Relations Director for the Minnesota Farmers Union.

According to a University of Minnesota Extension study, the legislation could spur the development of more than a dozen new commercial-scale projects across the state, generate over $830 million in new economic output, and create more than 3,000 new jobs.

“The bill will continue to position Minnesota as a leader in biobased technologies, including biofuels,” said Anna Boroff, Public Policy Director with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “This is an opportunity for corn farmers to have additional opportunities for their crop and for rural Minnesota to benefit from the economic development boost these projects will bring.”

Whitney Clark, Executive Director of Friends of the Mississippi River says the agreement is also important because more groups are now pushing to pass bioeconomy legislation in the state. 

“This is an unusual coalition of folks who don’t always see eye to eye,” said Clark. “But we’re all behind this because there are so many benefits. This demonstrates that when we work together we can craft public policy that is good for our water, good for soil health and the rural economy and good for climate.”

“As the bill is amended, it will still make Minnesota the best place in the world for bioeconomy projects, and it also provides a bit more assurance that we will also get the best projects in the world,” concluded Jordan.

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