- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Minnesota has secured $350 million in federal funds for a voluntary program to pay farmers to protect and improve water quality in southern and western Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton announced Tuesday, but the state will have to come up with about $95 million more to get the full amount from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Minnesota Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program targets 60,000 acres across 54 counties that are facing significant water quality challenges.

“Through this landmark agreement, Minnesota will be better able to protect and improve our waters for our families, natural habitat, and our future,” the governor said in a statement.

Under the initiative, farmers and farmland owners will be encouraged to enroll land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program and the state Reinvest in Minnesota program to create buffers, restore wetlands and protect drinking water wellheads. Both of those programs pay landowners to take environmentally sensitive lands out of agricultural production.

The total investment would be $500 million if the Legislature approves the necessary matching funds. Previous legislative sessions have already appropriated $54.8 million of the state’s $150 million share. Dayton included $30 million more in his recently announced public construction bill. His administration will also seek money from the state’s Clean Water Fund and Outdoor Heritage Fund, which use sales taxes, and the Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources, which uses state lottery proceeds and investment income.

Dayton made the announcement as part of his “Year of Water Action,” a response to the large number of Minnesota lakes and streams listed as impaired or polluted, the threat from invasive species, and deteriorating public water systems.

But it comes as one of his premier water quality initiatives - a state law requiring buffer strips of vegetation between farm fields and waterways - is under fire from lawmakers and farmers who say it forces them to take land out of production without compensation. The 2015 law requires 50-foot setbacks around public waterways starting in November, and extra protections around other water sources starting in 2018. A group of House Republicans introduced a bill last week that would repeal the law entirely.

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