Broken Stream Banks

Failure to maintain buffer zones worsens farm pollution

April 25, 2014

Broken Stream Banks: Conclusion

Southern Minnesota and the Minnesota River basin in particular have serious problems with pollution by sediment and nutrients. These problems cannot be solved unless polluted runoff from cropland and stream bank erosion is dramatically reduced. Row crop agriculture must play a leading role in cleaning up southern Minnesota’s waterways. In 30 counties, row crops occupy more than 50 percent of the total land area, and in 13 counties row crops account for 75 percent or more.

Maintaining a buffer of permanent vegetation between row crops and waterways will not solve all the pollution problems in the basin. But science and professional experience show that such buffers make an important contribution to cleaner water and stronger stream banks.

Minnesota’s progressive shoreland management rule presents a remarkable opportunity to accelerate progress toward cleaner water. A sizeable number of agricultural landowners are maintaining the required buffers between cropland and waterways, but many others are not, even along perennial rivers and streams. A concerted effort by state and county governments to ensure that the required buffers are in place would be an important step forward in harmonizing agricultural production and clean water in southern Minnesota. Better enforcement would ensure that the water quality gains achieved by those landowners who do comply with the agricultural buffer requirements are not undone by the poor performance of others – often their neighbors – who do not.

Some counties and local organizations have already stepped forward with initiatives to make sure that landowners understand their obligations under the shoreland management rule and to ensure that those obligations are met. Our investigation shows, however, that much more needs to be done.

EWG hopes our report will contribute to that important work.