98% of Winona County ready
by CHRIS ROGERS
Today is the deadline for Minnesota’s buffer law, the 2015 law that requires a 50-foot-wide strip of perennial vegetation to border creeks, rivers, intermittent streams, and “public waters.” Despite a late harvest that is still coming in, nearly 98 percent of affected properties in Winona County are either in compliance or have applied for an extension to plant buffer strips this spring.
Vegetation along streams helps filter runoff entering the streams, and in Winona County, the vast majority of landowners already had buffer strips on their property when the 2015 law was passed. The county’s shoreland ordinance already required it. While some landowners have bucked at how small, intermittent streams are wrapped up in the state’s definition of public waters — it includes any “watercourses with a total drainage area greater than two square miles” — the law takes effect today.
On Monday, numerous landowners called or came into the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Office in Lewiston to apply for extensions, according to SWCD Director Daryl Buck. Some 95 landowners have applied for or received extensions. Many of them are farmers whose crops will not be harvested in time to plant buffers this fall, he explained. As of Monday, there were another 37 landowners who had not responded to two letters from the SWCD. “Those 37 landowners are the only ones that need to worry right now,” Buck stated.
Today, Buck’s office will give Winona County a list of which properties are in compliance, which property owners have applied for an extension, and which ones have not responded and may be noncompliant. From there, the Winona County Planning Department is responsible for enforcing the buffer law.
“I suspect most folks have just been too busy getting the crops out,” Winona County Planning and Environmental Services Director Kay Qualley said. “I fully expect there are only going to be a handful of folks that we will wind up talking to at any length,” she added. Qualley’s department will begin contacting non-responsive property owners. If landowners say they already have buffers, the county will try to verify that. “We don’t want to alarm anyone,” Qualley stated. “We’ll probably be calling people up to say, ‘Can we meet?’ We’ll ask about doing a field walk, and refer them to people who can help [plan a buffer planting],” she said. “So we’re not coming in carrying a big stick or anything like that — far from it. We want to help people become compliant by helping them realize there’s a number of steps to follow,” Qualley added.
Is this buffer law a good step toward better water quality? “It’s a step,” Buck responded. “Because we had well over 80 percent compliance already, it’s not a huge change.” Still, buffers are good, he added. “There are benefits even with subsurface movement [of water] with that vegetation being there. That root system can help clean up any impurities before it hits the stream,” Buck said.
Landowners may apply for an extension by calling the SWCD office at 507-523-2171, extension 3. The Winona County Planning Department may be reached 507-457-6520.