Riparian Buffers: A Boost to Clean Water

By Matt Doll

I’ll admit that, being a city dweller for most of my life, I’ve only learned about the importance of agricultural buffers fairly recently. I grew up in a small Wisconsin town surrounded by cornfields and dairy farms, but it never occurred to me that the strips of trees or brush that I would sometimes see by streams off of Highway 51 might have some broader significance beyond providing nesting ground for raccoons. So when I heard buffers brought up in a legislative meeting a few weeks ago, I didn’t immediately understand what everyone was talking about. That’s been a common thread among friends I talk to: everyone supports clean water and a healthy ecosystem in our farmland, but not many people understand what buffers are or how they can help. After I learned more, I decided to make spreading the word about buffers one of my missions as a volunteer for the Sierra Club.

Waterway Buffer.  Photo credit: USDA

Waterway Buffer.  Photo credit: USDA

For those of you, like me, without much of an agricultural background, a riparian buffer is basically a small strip of trees, bushes, or brush that separates cropland from natural waterways, such as streams or rivers. The typical size varies from region to region, but the key factor is the plant life on the buffer: it is typically native vegetation that will live for multiple years. A buffer can be used for activities like recreation, among other things, as long as it has this vegetation.

The buffer vegetation’s greatest benefit to humans and the ecosystem is its ability to guard against pollutants. When rain or snowmelt causes water to run off of farm fields, it generally carries with it various fertilizers, pesticides, and other pollutants. Fertilizers like phosphates and nitrates, while conducive to growing larger crops, can be very harmful in the water supply. Phosphates can cause the kinds of rampant algal blooms, which harm fish and other wildlife, that are becoming more and more common the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Nitrates can easily cause birth defects and illness in infants, and can exacerbate some conditions in adults. Pesticides also have adverse effects on animal and human health if allowed to drain into the groundwater or rivers that we drink. And pathogens, while rarer, can also seep into our water supply.

Algal Bloom. Photo credit: EPA

Algal Bloom. Photo credit: EPA

Riparian buffers provide a shield against these kinds of pollutants. The vegetation filters out a significant portion of these chemicals: the USDA estimates that 50% or more of pesticides and fertilizers can be mitigated with buffers. Buffers don’t require much in the way of maintenance, making them a clean, green way to protect our water supply.

The vegetation on buffers also provides enormous benefits for wildlife. Birds, mammals, and amphibians all nest in these strips, keeping the ecosystem’s food web intact. Importantly for human activities, they also provide vital habitats for pollinators, which are critical for agriculture. My hometown pastor, who happens to be a beekeeper, recently mentioned that buffers are especially critical as homes for honeybees and other pollinating insects. And they keep the all-important crop soil healthy and intact by preventing erosion due sediment runoff.

As we can see, the benefits of buffers for the ecosystem are numerous, and as part of Minnesota’s ecosystem, we have an interest and a responsibility in enacting an effective buffer policy for our farmland. To that end, Governor Mark Dayton has proposed a program that would mandate buffers on much of Minnesota’s cropland. The bill currently on the table in the Minnesota Legislature would set out statewide standards for buffers and clean water regulation on farms, as opposed to the patchwork of regulations we currently have from county to county. It has bipartisan backing and the support of much of the public.

Waterway Buffer.  Photo credit: USDA

Waterway Buffer.  Photo credit: USDA

But buffers are not going to materialize unopposed. I recently read a media release from the Farm Bureau, an agricultural financial institution here in Minnesota, that states that buffers are irresponsible and a violation of farmer’s rights and interests, and that they would oppose the Governor’s proposal. They have argued that buffer science is flawed, despite many federal agencies and scientific researchers agreeing that buffers are a boon to clean water.

Many Minnesota farmers are entirely in support of buffers as a responsible means of good land stewardship, but those who oppose it have raised legitimate questions. Farmers have an economic interest in using their land, and as a friend of mine recently pointed out to me, many farmers exercise other means of keeping water clean and preventing erosion on their land. Buffers can’t be fairly implemented without taking farmers’ concerns into account.

I’ll tell you what I told my friend: that’s a very important point, and that’s why Governor Dayton’s proposal addresses that by allowing farmers to acquire permits to use other means to keep nearby waterways clean, rather than buffers. If a farmer believes that a different solution works for their land, that’s entirely legal. Contrary to what many critics have said, it’s not a one-size-fits-all program. But allowing anyone to get away with polluting Minnesota’s water without mitigation is irresponsible and dangerous for farmers and Metro dwellers alike. All of us in Minnesota need clean water, and if you take a look of river systems in the state, you’ll see that there is no isolated water: our water supply is connected.

That’s why the buffers proposal seeks to mandate clean water practices. For those farmers worried about the economics of the proposal, there are numerous government incentives and subsidies for buffer implementation. And clean water is economically important too: the health of our towns and cities, the survival of our ecosystems, and the vitality of our land depends on it. We use water for recreation, for sustenance, and for just about everything else we do.

If you want to assist in promoting the clean water benefits of riparian buffers, contact your legislators and Governor Dayton and tell them to push hard for this bill. But don’t stop there: talk to your friends and neighbors and spread the word on social media. Opponents of clean water have defined the science of this issue long enough, so read more about buffer science if you’re interested in contributing to the discussion. Whether you live in an urban, suburban, or rural community, all Minnesotans have a reason to stand up for this legislation, because all of us can benefit from a smart, commonsense water pollution solution for years to come.

Matt Doll is a Legislative Intern for the Sierra Club North Star Chapter.

Waterway Buffer.  Photo credit: USDA

Waterway Buffer.  Photo credit: USDA

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