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Dayton caves to Big Ag, Republicans on protecting us from water pollution

Buffers like the ones in the background of this photo are critical to protecting Minnesota's water, much of which is already too polluted for swimming.

Buffers like the ones in the background of this photo are critical to protecting Minnesota's water, much of which is already too polluted for swimming.

Private drainage ditches snake through Minnesota’s farmland. These man-made tributaries collect rainwater and irrigation runoff, which carry liquid hog manure, industrial fertilizers, and pesticides. And that winds up in our lakes and streams.

It’s the sort of water you wouldn’t want immerse yourself in without a wetsuit and a snorkel. And even then.

Last year the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency released a startling report declaring half of southern Minnesota’s lakes unfit for swimming or recreational activity. Governor Mark Dayton responded by pushing for buffers to help shield waterways from ag runoff.

He proposed a mandatory 50-foot buffer, a strip of grass that would help trap the bacteria and nutrients from farm runoff before it washed into the ditches. Big Ag lobbyists balked. The undue burden would hamper farmers, they moaned. There would be lost profits from sacrificing land to water-purifying buffers.

So House Republicans, Big Ag’s henchmen, whittled down that mandatory buffer to a meager 16.5 feet. They shuttled their weakened bill through a special committee. It passed behind closed doors and under the cover of night.

Even though it was an abortion of the democratic process, and even as he cringed at its eviscerated final version, Dayton signed the buffer bill into law last October. Then he no doubt put that painful memory behind him.

Until last week.

It turns out that despite hijacking the governor’s mandate, walking it back from 50 feet to 16.5, and giving industrial farming the green light to trickle liquid manure into your water, House Republicans still have one thing they didn’t get quite right. They say they didn’t realize the buffer law would apply to private drainage ditches. And they’re holding this year’s bonding bill hostage to make sure private ditches — the ones coursing through all those corn fields and behind the giant hog barns — are exempt from the rules.

Last Friday, Dayton released a hangdog statement, capitulating “with great reluctance” to the demands of the hijackers.

“Threats have been reported to me that DNR and BWSR’s bonding requests – which are urgently needed to address the state’s serious water quality and infrastructure challenges – would not be considered by House leadership, if private ditches were not retroactively exempted from the new buffer requirement. I will not put at risk the water quality improvements in my bonding proposal and other critical bonding measures over this dispute.”

The governor added that he is “deeply disappointed” by the reversal of a “modest agreement.” 

The agreement was certainly modest. Many, including Minnesota Environmental Partnership’s executive director Steve Morse, believe the bill was already substantially weakened in the last legislative session. It’s just a further “shrinking of the impact of that legislation,” Morse says. And since Dayton has ordered the DNR to stop the preliminary mapping of private ditches around Minnesota’s farmland, “we don’t know how many miles of waterways won’t be buffered.”

Dayton is gearing up for an ambitious bonding bill, full of water infrastructure improvements to keep Minnesota cities and towns from becoming the next Flint, Michigan. But before the legislative session has even begun, House Republicans are making clear that they will do most anything to protect Big Ag.

“Is this the last thing that holds up the bonding bill?” asks Morse. “Where does it stop?”