Everything you need to know about Minnesota's buffer laws

With planting season underway and a new bill recently signed into law by Gov. Dayton that clarifies several items in Minnesota’s new buffer law (which was passed during the 2015 legislative session), the Minnesota Corn Growers Association put together the following Frequently Asked Questions post the buffer law.

To the best of our abilities, we tried to simplify the many complexities of the bill so farmers had an easy-to-understand, yet comprehensive, reference point when asking questions about the buffer law. We also included some resources at the end if you have additional questions.

Here we go:

What are the requirements of the buffer law passed in 2015?
All public waters (rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands) require an average of a 50-foot buffer of perennial vegetation. All public drainage systems require a 16.5-foot buffer.  Alternative practices based on Natural Resource & Conservation Service (NRCS) guidelines or approved by your local Board of Soil & Water Resources (BWSR) are allowed for both public waters and public drainage systems, as identified by BWSR.

How long do I have to put in buffers and comply with the law?
On public waters, buffers must be seeded by Nov. 1, 2017. On public drainage systems, the deadline is Nov. 1, 2018. On public drainage systems the buffer is required regardless if the system has undergone the redetermination of benefits process and damages of the public drainage system under drainage law.  However compensation provided under drainage law may be used in advance or retroactively to provide compensation for all or part of the buffer strip establishment or alternative riparian water quality practice.

Can you review what the redetermination of benefits process is?
Any activity such as maintenance or improvements to a public drainage system that results in viewers to assess benefits and damages, the ditch authority can order that a permanent strip of perennial vegetation approved by the authority shall be established on each side of the ditch The new buffer law states that redetermination of benefits provisions may be used in advance or retroactively to acquire or provide compensation for all or part of the buffer strip or alternative practice.

Where is the start of the buffer measured from?
For public waters, buffer width is measured from the top or crown of the bank or from the edge of the normal water level if there is not a defined bank.  The width of the buffer on a public drainage system must be measured from the top edge of the existing constructed channel.

What if a buffer will not provide adequate protection on certain waterways? Are alternative practices allowed?
Yes. The Board of Soil and Water Resources will approve alternative riparian water quality practices.

What if a farmer does not comply with the buffer law by the deadlines?
A penalty of up to $500 may be assessed for noncompliance. The Board of Soil & Water Resources is developing a plan to issue administrative penalty orders, or it can be enforced locally by a county or watershed. Local Soil & Water Conservation Districts will help landowners comply with the buffer law.

A new bill recently signed into law by Gov. Dayton offers several clarifications on the original buffer legislation passed in 2015. Here are answers to several questions pertaining to these new clarifications.

Does the clarification bill make it clear that private ditches are exempt from the new buffer law?
It does. However, there may be cases where a landowner thinks he or she has a private ditch, but it’s actually a public water. In relation to the buffer law, the term “public water” means waters that are on the DNR public water inventory map, which can be viewed here.

Am I still able to enroll buffered land in programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)?
Yes, the law does not limit eligibility for enrollment or re-enrollment in conservation programs. One item to clarify in this area: As of now, the Farm Service Agency maintains that on CRP land renewed on public ditches, the first one rod of buffer would not be paid for in subsequent contracts. This is because public ditches will be required by the new buffer law to have a 16.5-foot buffer. Essentially, FSA is saying it will not compensate landowners simply for complying with the new law.

That’s a little confusing. Can you explain further?
For example, if you had a 100-foot buffer enrolled in CRP and the contract expires in 2018 when the new buffer law goes into effect, you can re-enroll the land in CRP with a 15-year contract. However, only the 83.5 feet not mandated by the new buffer law would be eligible for compensation (100 feet minus the 16.5-foot buffer required by the new law.)    

Compared to the buffer law passed in 2015, does the new buffer law clarification bill add or remove any waters required to have buffers?
No. As stated previously, it does clarify that “public waters” means waters on the DNR public inventory maps. This neither adds nor reduces areas covered by the requirements in the original buffer law. It also clarified that private ditches are not subject to the public drainage requirements.

If a local government does not enforce the new buffer law, will it lose funding like Local Government Aid unrelated to the implementation of the new buffer law?

Are landowners able to provide input to DNR on the mapping process?
Yes. The DNR is accepting comments through May 31. Comments should be sent to buffermapping.dnr@state.mn.us. Here is a DNR news release further explaining the comment process. Specific questions about the map’s depiction of waters on private land should be directed to your local Soil & Water Conservation District or drainage authority.

Who can I contact if I have additional questions about the new buffer law?
Your local Soil & Water Conservation District is a good place to start. Warren Formo at the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center is another good source. So is Anna Boroff with the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.

Additional sources include:


Finally, we’d like to hear from you on how implementation is going on your farm or in your region. Are there any problems or concerns as you’re working with your local Soil & Water Conservation District? Any disagreements over what is a private drainage system or public water on your farm?

The more feedback we receive on how implementation of the new buffer law is going, the better job we can do at the state level of addressing issues as they arise and ensuring that the implementation process goes as smoothly as possible. You can reach the MCGA office at (952) 233-0333.

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