Last Friday, Governor Dayton ordered the DNR to take "private ditches" out of the riparian buffer maps it is preparing under the 2015 buffer law. The statute says there need to be at least one-rod (16.5-foot) buffers on "ditches within the benefited areas of public drainage systems," and until Friday, the DNR position was, correctly, that the statute does not distinguish between "public" and "private" ditches. After all, the water that flows through these ditches all count as "waters of the state," no matter who built or owns the drainage structure. But the governor countermanded the agency, and that is a major setback for the buffer law's coverage.
At the same time, the DNR has also been responsible for mapping the "public waters" that are supposed to get 50-foot buffers under both the old and the new buffer laws. Unfortunately, they have been excluding major components of our "public waters," both by relying on outdated 35-year-old maps instead of current datasets and by excluding public waters that do not carry a "shoreland designation," a phrase that does not appear in the statute. That threatens to exclude a significant percentage of the watercourses that need protection, and takes most of our larger public waters wetlands out of the picture. The result is that many of the key tributaries of the Minnesota River and elsewhere in southwestern Minnesota, arguably the very watercourses that drove passage of the buffer bill in the first place, may be excluded. We also may lose buffer protection for many of the prairie potholes in western Minnesota.
We hope these problems can still be corrected as we move through the process. But today the reality is that our already watered-down buffer bill is getting watered down further in the implementation process, and we may well see very few, if any, water quality improvements from the governor's initiative. Stay tuned.