Dayton wants public input on water quality plan
ST. PAUL -- Gov. Mark Dayton is making another push to clean up Minnesota's waters -- and says he's learned lessons from his contentious battle two years ago to implement buffer strips along the state's waterways.
ST. PAUL - Gov. Mark Dayton is making another push to clean up Minnesota's waters - and says he's learned lessons from his contentious battle two years ago to implement buffer strips along the state's waterways.
In a speech Friday to the Minnesota Environmental Congress, the DFL governor said he'll propose improving Minnesota's water quality 25 percent by the year 2025.
But he's not proposing specific tools to accomplish that reduction just yet. Instead, he says he'll solicit citizen input around the state this summer and make proposals based on that input in 2018.
"One of the lessons I learned with the buffer legislation is that it was criticized as a top-down, one-size-fits-all mandate," Dayton said. "I have my own ideas. I can advance those next year. But I want to let this process unfold and get citizens themselves engaged and citizens themselves feeling their own investment in the outcome."
That's a message some Minnesota agricultural leaders are welcoming.
"It's so refreshing to do it this way rather than the top-down way that he did the buffers," said Harold Wolle, a Watonwan County farmer and president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. "I appreciate immensely that he has switched it around and is going to go out to the country to get the opinions and ideas of the people who are going to be working on that proposal."
The buffer legislation was one of Dayton's top priorities in 2015. The Legislature that year passed a buffer law that requires strips of land with perennial plants along state waters. Those buffers act as a filter to help keep fertilizers and other chemicals used on crops and lawns out of rivers, lakes and groundwater.
The rules have been controversial with farmers who say they are already working to minimize contaminated runoff into public waters and dislike being forced to convert productive farmland into buffers without compensation. They succeeded in limiting the scope of Dayton's proposal, including excluding private ditches from the buffer-strip requirement and limiting the size of some buffers.
State Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau and the chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, said he appreciates Dayton's new approach.
"If it's going to be something as broad as the buffers, quite frankly the last place it should be is the Legislature and the first place it should be is all over the state talking to people," Fabian said. "Once you get some kind of working plan and consensus and support, then bring it back to the Legislature."
Wolle said that aside from the specifics of the proposal, Dayton's strong language promoting the buffers in 2015 made farmers feel attacked.
"Those are fightin' words," he said. "Much better to do it this way, to go out and get the cooperation of the people."
After accomplishing buffers, Dayton says he's out for more than just implementing policy. He wants to change minds.
"There's some level of mandates or requirements (needed). But that's not going to solve our water degradation problem," Dayton said. "We have to create an ethic in Minnesota that everyone is responsible for clean water through their daily practices, through their business practices, through their farming practices."
Creating a new popular ethic might be easier than getting expansive new environmental laws through the current Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans who are skeptical of new regulations that could hurt agriculture or industry.
Dayton said state staff will hold town hall meetings around the state this summer and fall, trying to "enlist citizens to decide in their areas what it will take to improve water quality by 25 percent."
Fabian said lawmakers aren't dismissing the idea of a 25 percent reduction out of hand but want to learn more about it.
"There's a lot of unanswered questions," he said.