The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources released another set of tools to help farmers identify alternative buffer options in order to comply with the state’s buffer law.
Known as “the six-pack” in BWSR circles, the Common Alternative Practices guidance list offers six water quality conservation options for common situations where practices other than buffers may make sense.
The Common Alternative Practices offered by BWSR are certification through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program; or installation of a USDA practice standard filter strip, a grassed waterway on public waters, a negative slope on public ditches, a negative slope on public waters or a buffer plus conservation tillage.
Details about each practice may be found at bit.ly/buffer-practices. http://bit.ly/buffer-practices.
Alternatives to buffers allowed
Under the law, landowners can use alternative practices with equivalent water quality benefits to buffers. Soil and water conservation districts have the authority to validate these practices, and are working to partner and support landowners to find the best solutions for their land. BWSR’s role is to provide program guidance and support, and ensure local governments are consistent and working with landowners.
John Jaschke, BWSR executive director, says Minnesota’s buffer law was designed to be flexible while delivering improved water quality benefits.
“Around the state, there are already examples of landowners and SWCDs working together to achieve those results using something other than a buffer,” he says. “The law’s flexibility enables Minnesota landowners to find a solution that works for them and their land.”
Jim Gebhardt, a corn, soybean and canning crops farmer from Waltham, now knows conservation practices on his family farm are buffer-law-compliant.
Gebhardt worked with Minnesota Soybean Promotion and Research Council, Houston Engineering Inc. and the Mower County SWCD to determine whether grass basins his family installed in the mid-1980s could serve as an alternative practice.
“[Back then,] we were losing soil on top of the hill,” Gebhardt recalls, adding that they were doing conventional tillage at the time. “We knew we had to do something.” His dad, Bill, talked with SWCD staff, and they determined the 150-acre parcel needed five sediment-and-water control basins. The site now also has several grass waterways, and two pieces of land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
Study of alternative practices
MSR&PC and Houston Engineering were involved, because soybean growers wanted to develop a framework for use in determining whether landowners are or can become compliant with the buffer law through alternative practices. To prove the framework is viable, the soybean group sought a farmer willing to work with a local SWCD, and use the framework to get alternative practices approved.
The Gebhardt brothers — Jim, Mike and Bob — agreed to participate in the study. Their land had been identified as needing more buffer along Roberts Creek, which flows into the Cedar River north of Austin. That parcel, however, had a number of conservation practices that were still properly functioning.
After evaluating the site, Gebhardt says that Houston Engineering determined the existing practices were providing three times the benefit that a buffer would. The Mower SWCD confirmed that too — the combination of practices went beyond the water quality benefits required to satisfy the buffer law.
Jaschke notes that SCWDs are required to provide validation of buffer compliance. “We encourage people to talk with their local SWCD staff if they are not going with prescribed buffers,” he says. He adds that the six alternative practices that BWSR offered are not the only options. Other combinations of practices, based in the Natural Resources Conservation Service Field Office technical guide, can be developed in partnership with SWCDs. BWSR will continue to consider additional alternative practices to provide more options for SWCDs and landowners to develop solutions to fit their land.
With seven months to go until the Nov. 1 deadline, 64 of Minnesota’s 87 counties are 60% to 100% in compliance with the buffer law, according to BWSR.
More information on the buffer program, including more detailed information on alternative practices and the variety of technical and financial assistance available to help landowners with implementation, can be found at BWSR’s website, bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers.