- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - In an effort to ease concerns about his plan to create 50-foot buffer zones along Minnesota waterways, Gov. Mark Dayton started lining up more money this week to reimburse farmers.

The governor set aside $20 million in his proposed bonding bill unveiled Tuesday to buy up swaths of cropland from farmers. He also tasked his cabinet to seek out hundreds of millions of dollars through a federal program that pays farmers in 10- to 15-year contracts for instituting buffers, his office said.

Though some opponents of the governor’s proposal say the prospect of additional financial assistance for farmers is a positive step, others aren’t thrilled with the thought of permanent easements along the lakes, rivers and streams Dayton is seeking to protect from runoff. And reimbursing farmers for land lost to buffers is one of several gripes among a crowd of critics who call Dayton’s plan an ill-conceived, “one-size-fits-all” approach.

“It’s certainly a step in the right direction,” said Sen. Dan Sparks, a top Democratic voice on agriculture who has previously called the governor’s plan “unworkable.”

First revealed in January, environmental and sporting groups have pegged Dayton’s plan as the best way to prevent harmful pesticides and other runoff from damaging the water and also to provide more habitat for wildlife. But it got a frosty reception at public meetings in southern Minnesota farming communities last week.

“The governor has been going around having these town hall meetings because he wants to hear ideas on how to improve the bill,” spokesman Matt Swenson said. “If people have ideas of how to improve the proposal, he is all ears and wants to hear it.”

Dayton’s efforts to line up more money for farmers would add another layer to the various federal programs already in use by farmers who have voluntarily set back their crops from waterways. Those other programs and uncertainty about how many farmers would even seek out financial help from the state make it difficult to estimate what the cost may be to the state, said John Jaschke, executive director of Minnesota’s Board of Water and Soil Resources.

But even with a promise of extra money for farmers, there’s a long way to go to get agricultural industry organizations on board.

Groups like the Minnesota Corn Growers Association have stressed from the outset that the state should instead devote more resources to enforcing the Minnesota’s current 16 1/2-foot buffer law. And rather than the mandatory 50-foot setback, farmers should be able to coordinate with local water and soil experts about what distance may be necessary, Minnesota Corn Growers Association spokesman Adam Czech said.

“There is local expertise out there to work with farmers on the buffer issue,” Czech said. “Some streams might need 50 feet. Some might be fine with 10 feet. Some might need 120 feet.”

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