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County board denies funding for buffer project

Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Manager Julie Kingsley sought county board approval of a proposed agreement and additional funds for the buffer ordinance.

She appeared before county commissioners Tuesday morning.

The state has tasked SWCD with assisting landowners in complying with the Minnesota buffer law, which requires the implementation of buffers and/or alternative, water-quality practices.

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) recently asked SWCDs to secure memorandums of agreement with county boards for administration of the buffer ordinance, Kingsley said, pointing out that Pennington County and others have signed a similar agreement.

Kingsley said BWSR allocated $10,000 for compliance and $10,000 for administration to SWCD.

"We've used up our yearly amount for everything we've done this year," she said, adding two incomplete projects remain before a November deadline.

In addition, a new state requirement stipulates that SWCD must inspect all the county's parcels every three years.

The proposed agreement requested that a portion of the state aid that Hubbard County receives for buffer enforcement be given to SWCD.

Kingsley also took the opportunity to introduce SWCD's newest staff member. William Lee, a water quality specialist, joined Kingsley at the meeting.

A motion to approve SWCD's request failed on a 2-3 vote, with county commissioners Cal Johannsen, Dan Stacey and Vern Massie opposed.

State buffer law

The state Legislature passed the law requiring the buffers along lakes, rivers, streams and ditches in 2015 and updated it in 2016.

The law defines a buffer as an establishment of perennial vegetation up to 50 feet along any public waters and up to 16.5 feet along any public ditches. All buffers had to be installed on public waters by Nov. 1, 2017 and on public ditches by Nov. 1, 2018.

In 2017, the Hubbard County Board elected to enforce the Minnesota Buffer Initiative rather than cede jurisdiction to BSWR.

While attending an Association of Minnesota Counties (AMC) conference, county commissioner Char Christenson said she heard of farmers' frustration with adhering to the buffer law.

Depending on the November election results, "all of this may change," she said.

Johannsen agreed. "After the first of the year, I think there'll be more changes to the buffer law," he said.

"Right now, it's in perpetuity," Kingsley said.

Lee added it would take years to alter the state law. "As for right now, we're probably looking at another three-year cycle to inspect, even if they do change the law. It'll take a long time to change."

"That's the trouble with government," quipped Christenson.

Lee said there are alternative practices "that allow farmers to have more crop production and go with a minimum buffer. They get increased crop production and increased water quality, but we just need the funding to implement and design those alternative practices. It's not only good PR for the county and the district, it's great help for farmers. It gives them another option."

Riparian Protection Aid

The draft agreement suggested that Hubbard County give 50 percent of its annual Riparian Protection Aid to the Hubbard County SWCD.

"That's just a starting point," Kingsley said. "The bare minimum — if we could get $10,000 — that would be fantastic."

Riparian Protection Aid is a state program is for counties and watershed districts. Funds are for enforcing and implementing the riparian protection and water quality practices required under state law.

According to the Minnesota Department of Revenue (DOR), Hubbard County received $50,000 in state aid in 2018 and will get another $50,000 in 2019.

The DOR website states, "Each county's share of the aid will be distributed to the entity with jurisdiction over implementing the buffer law. This may be the county, watershed districts or the state Board of Water and Soil Resources. The Department of Revenue will pay the counties and the Board of Water and Soil Resources. The counties will pay the watershed districts."

Christenson asked Environmental Services (ESO) Director Eric Buitenwerf how the state aid is currently being used.

It went into the ESO budget, he said. "So far, we've not had to spend time on enforcement, but we don't know what dollar amount will be necessary. . .It's too early in the game to know. The wise move would be to hold onto it until we know for sure."

New state requirement

Kingsley said the state of Minnesota is requiring SWCD to have a three-year inspection plan for every parcel in the county.

To accomplish this, SWCD plans to complete one-third of parcels each year. Some can be viewed with aerial photography, while others require on-site visits, she said.

Lee explained there are 11,000 parcels that must have compliance status entered manually into the state's online tracking tool.

"If they are non-compliant, we have to work through the different options. Rather than just turning it over to the county, we'd prefer to work with them and offer an extension of deadline or alternative practices like we're talking about. So additional funding would help us reduce the amount of enforcement the county would potentially have to do," he said.

E. coli in Kabekona River

One of the projects that must be done by Nov. 1 involves a property owner whose cows were defecating in Kabekona River.

In July 2017, SWCD began investigating possible sources of E. coli contamination in Kabekona River. The sites are located near County Road 93, County State Aid Highway 36 and State Highway 200, all within Lakeport and Hendrickson townships. All three sites exceeded established bacteria water quality standards. Citizens have been advised not to swim, fish or recreate on this section of Kabekona River.

Through the statewide buffer initiative, SWCD identified several sites on Kabekona River that need water-quality buffer strips.

This year, one site continually exceeds the state standard, according to Kingsley. It is downstream of the livestock farm.

"So basically it took care of itself?" Stacey asked.

No, the livestock weren't in the water this summer because water levels were too high, Kingsley said.

On a weekly basis, the counts are over 1,000 colonies of E. coli, Lee added.

The current water quality standard for E. coli is a monthly average of 126 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters (mL) of water. One hundred mL is equivalent to about seven tablespoons.

When the E. coli count surpasses the established standard, the water body is considered "impaired." People using impaired waters for recreation are at risk for exposure to pathogens.

To resolve the problem, the SWCD proposes erecting an exclusion fence in two spots to prevent cattle from accessing the river. The landowner is very cooperative, Lee said, adding she will bear no cost, other than maintenance, "because we're using our cost-share fund and the Trout Unlimited volunteers we've coordinated to come up with an in-kind match."

Lee said he's volunteering time as well as a Trout Unlimited member.

"This is a good case of where we're using buffer funding to help a landowner out at no cost," he continued.

Kingsley said this project is heavy with administration time; hence, the need for additional funds.

Denied

Johannsen said he was unwilling to give SWCD any funds. He blamed BWSR for becoming a huge bureaucracy and setting up unfunded mandates.

Without funding, the SWCD can't help landowners comply with the state law, Kingsley said.

Massie questioned whether the county could give the state aid to SWCD for administrative costs. He said there was no evidence that the buffer law was working.

Christenson made a motion to provide $10,000 of state aid to SWCD, so long as it was legally allowed for administration expenses.

County commissioner Ed Smith said, "I think they've put enough effort into this to continue the process." He seconded the motion, which failed 2-3.

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