DNR’s interactive map of buffer sites offers a fascinating view of a key resource

Minnesota DNR
The DNR’s new map enables a close-up look at all of the state’s lakes and streams, shown in blue in the section above, and also its public ditches, rendered in green.

Apart from its importance as a reference tool for landowners and regulators, the map of Minnesota watercourses requiring protective buffers creates a fascinating new view of the state and its distinguishing natural resource.

An exercise in high-resolution and highly interactive cartography, the map and online viewer published a couple of weeks ago by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources merges data from detailed paper maps and modern satellite imaging.

It enables a close-up look at all of the state’s lakes and streams, shown in blue in the section above, and also its public ditches, rendered in green. (The red squiggles indicate locations earmarked for ground-truthing.) You can choose to view them laid over satellite imagery of the surface, a road layout or a minimalist gray base map.

Note that the ditches are not a strictly rural feature by any means: The state’s most urbanized pair of counties has a fair number of them, too, carrying runoff into lakes from Minnetonka to White Bear and Bald Eagle.

Filtering that runoff is the central aim of the 2015 law that expands, strengthens and clarifies a patchwork set of buffer requirements that grew up over the decades but often went unimplemented, and even when implemented were often ignored.

As Sarah Strommen of the DNR and John Jaschke of the Board of Water and Soil Resources explained here in an interview last summer, about 80 percent of the public ditches in Minnesota’s agricultural counties — and nearly two-thirds of watercourses overall — hadn’t been subject to buffer requirements prior to the new law.

Old law sort of required a 50-foot buffer along most lakes and streams, but only after it was formally applied to a particular water body via local zoning ordinance. Buffers of one rod, or 16.5 feet, were supposed to be observed along all public ditches, but this required action by the responsible  ditch authority, which might be a watershed district, county board or other local unit.

Those bodies often had other things on their to-do lists, and some were less than enthusiastic about applying protections that might require taking cropland out of production, even if the amounts were small. Ditto for the county attorneys who would have to prosecute violators, assuming there were rules in place to be violated.

In addition to applying the buffer requirements more uniformly, the law enables stronger local enforcement by soil and water conservation districts, with Jaschke’s agency empowered to step in if they fail to meet their obligations.

Optimism on compliance

But Jaschke told me he expected fairly good cooperation with the new program,  given the availability of technical help, financial assistance — and a variety of non-buffer alternatives that can be used in situations where they prove more workable or affordable, as long as they’re comparably effective.

He reiterated those points in a recent Q&A with the Strib’s Dennis Anderson, noting that compliance rates are expected to be high and, indeed, in some counties have already approached 100 percent. Excerpts from his comments:

We believe about 90 percent of public waters already are buffered to some degree. We estimate that only about 20 percent of public ditches have a 1-rod buffer, however.

We expect most local authorities will choose to take on compliance, and we are working closely with them to determine how best to integrate that work with their existing responsibilities.

The law allows for alternatives to conventional buffers to be used [where extensive drain tile is in place] and other circumstances. Every site is different — its topography, soil type, cropping systems and so forth. A circular buffer around surface intakes to treat water before it gets to a ditch or river is one option, for instance.

If you’re a landowner with a piece of property associated with a riparian area that has a cropping history, the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program could provide cash on a 10- or 15-year contract. Additionally, Soil and Water Conservation Districts in some instances have state money available.

We’re also working with USDA on a cooperative federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program funding source. Gov. Dayton submitted a proposal to USDA in December that would combine state and federal money to get permanent protection of buffers and also accomplish wetland restorations and protect municipal wells.

Glitches and disputes

Still, the buffer program’s path from this month’s map to the compliance deadlines — this November for non-ditch watercourses, next November for public ditches — is littered with considerable uncertainty.

Coverage in outstate papers has highlighted errors, real or imagined, that landowners think they’ve spotted in the DNR’s map viewer. From the Redwood Falls Gazette:

“I want to encourage everyone who may be required to put in buffers to get all of the information they can,” said District 16B Rep. Paul Torkelson, who was involved in crafting the final buffer bill. “Be sure to look at the map and check for errors.”

Torkelson said he looked at some of the preliminary maps and found several things that needed to be corrected on land he owns.

Naturally there are errors because of inherent limits in the processes that produced the source maps as well as the merged product, and because watercourses move around over time, among other factors.

The DNR’s main buffers page anticipates a range of landowner questions, challenges and objections, including these:

  • I don’t think the watercourse on my land should be a public water.
  • The watercourse shown on the viewer only has water in it a few times a year. What requirements apply?
  • There is no channel where the public water is shown. I am farming through the area or it is a grassed waterway and a buffer requirement is not reasonable.
  • An act of nature, previous landowner or I have moved the public watercourse to a different location than depicted on the map …

And so on. In nearly every case, the DNR’s counsel is to take the matter up with local Soil and Water Conservation Districts, which will be collecting data for at least two planned revisions in the statewide map — while attempting to resolve various disputes over how the law should apply.

It will be interesting to watch this process play out, and perhaps the best thing about this new tool is that its very accessibility empowers ordinary citizens to monitor the results of water-quality efforts that used to take place largely out of public view.

Anybody with a computer will now be able to look up the watercourses that matter to them most and determine whether they’re being protected adequately — and if they’re not, to start asking why.

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