GOP bills target buffer zones

Environmentalists decry measures being advanced

From staff and wire reports

MINNEAPOLIS — Environmentalists say Republicans who control the Minnesota Legislature and their allies are pressing a slate of bills that add up to bad news for the environment.

Those bills include one to eliminate the state Environmental Quality Board. Another would create new ways to challenge environmental regulations. Others would weaken one of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature environmental accomplishments, a law requiring buffer strips of vegetation between farm fields and waterways to trap pollutants.

“This is the week where all the policy bills are going to get hashed out,” said Aaron Klemz, spokesman for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

The GOP controls both the House and Senate for the first time since 2012. That’s given Republicans new opportunities for advancing legislation, and they’re hoping to use this session to push back against what they say is overregulation and governmental overreach.

Their majority in the Senate is only seat, and the governor can veto any bill he thinks goes too far.

Several measures seek to change the 2015 buffer strips law, which is unpopular among farm groups. The Department of Natural Resources has said those several measures could weaken protections for more than 48,000 miles of streams and ditches.

The buffer law requires permanent areas of vegetation around drainage ditches and public waters, to help prevent runoff entering the water. Either buffers or alternative water quality protections have to be in place for public waters by Nov. 1, and by Nov. 1, 2018, for ditches.

Lyon County Soil and Water Conservation District administrator John Biren told Lyon County commissioners earlier this month that more than 2,000 parcels of land in Lyon County would be affected by the buffer law.

He said based on aerial photos taken in 2015, around 25 percent of affected properties in Lyon County would not meet the buffer law’s standards.

One proposed measure already awaits a Senate floor vote.

But Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, who chairs the Senate environment policy committee, said she’s not sure what lawmakers will ultimately decide to do about buffers.

“At the end of the day it has to be something the governor will sign, and it has to be something that makes sense,” Ruud said.

The bill to eliminate the quality board came from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. It’s already passed five committees in the two chambers and faces a sixth Wednesday. The board is made up of nine agency heads and five citizens. Its duties include coordinating state agencies on environmental issues and creating opportunities for the public to be involved, such as the Minnesota Environmental Congress it organized last month.

The board probably was a good idea when it was created 44 years ago but it’s now “duplicative and redundant,” said Tony Kwilas, director of environmental policy for the Chamber. State agencies give ample opportunity for public input, he said, and if a governor wants more coordination among agencies on a particular issue he can just order it