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Implementation of Minnesota’s buffer law is underway: Public Waters Compliance

This article is part two regarding Minnesota's buffer law. Read part one here.

With the November 2017 deadline for land owners with land adjacent to public waters approaching, the Minnesota Board of Water & Soil Resources is putting some flesh on the bones of the law by issuing Policy Guidances that provide some detail as to how the law will be interpreted and enforced. This update, the second in a series of updates about the Buffer Law’s implementation, will summarize the latest guidance on how affected land owners with land adjacent to public waters can comply with the law’s requirements, which go into effect November 1, 2017.

How do land owners know if they will be required to put in buffers by November 1, 2017?

You are affected if you have land adjacent to public waters, which includes all lakes, wetlands, and watercourses that meet the criteria set forth in Minnesota Statutes 103G.005, Subd. 15 and are designated on public waters inventory maps. You can check to see if your land on the DNR inventory map here:  http://dnr.state.mn.us/buffers/index.html.

What do landowners need to do to create a buffer that complies with the Buffer Law?

By November 1, 2016, affected land owners must install a 50-foot average (with a 30-foot minimum) width buffer along public waters.  A buffer is defined as “an area consisting of perennial vegetation, excluding invasive plants and noxious weeds, adjacent to all bodies of water within the state that protects the water resources of the state from runoff pollution; stabilizes soils, shores, and banks; and protects or provides riparian corridors.”[1]

What does “perennial vegetation” mean?

On September 15, 2016, the BWSR provided this guidance on what will be considered sufficient vegetation for purposes complying with of the Buffer Law.[2] These guidelines are to be applied after two growing seasons of establishment.

  • A minimum of 80% the total buffer area must contain vegetative ground coverage. This can be a combination of annual, biennial, and perennial vegetation.
  • A minimum of 75% should be perennial vegetation.
  • No more than 300 square feet can be bare ground.
  • Buffers cannot be created or re-establishes using seeding of invasive or noxious weeds.
  • It is not necessary to remove trees and shrubs to plant a vegetative understory, even though there may be times during the year where vegetative ground cover is minimal.
  • Other suggestions include delaying mowing until after August 1 and to a height of no less than 4-6 inches; and working with SWCD and NRCS offices to obtain various pollinator mixes.

Other ways land owners can comply:

  • Meet the state shoreland standards and criteria set out in Minnesota Statute 103F.211.[3]
  • Have the buffer areas enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.[4]
  • Obtain certification under the Minnesota Water Quality Certification Program.[5]
  • Implement an “alternative riparian water quality practice or combination of structural, vegetative, and management practices… that provide water quality protection comparable to the buffer protection for the water body that the property abuts.”[6]
    • Alternative practices should be based on the Natural Resources Conservation Service Field Office Technical Guide or other practices approved by the BWSR.*
    • Retention ponds are included as an alternative measure to prevent overland flow.
    • The comparable water quality benefit must be achieved via: (1) documentation of the assessment method used, (2) a map or diagram of the practices, and (3) documentation that the water quality protection is comparable to buffer protection for the water that the property abuts.[7]
    • In order to be considered comparable to a buffer, water quality protection must:
      • Treat all water running off a parcel that would otherwise be treated by a buffer under the Buffer Law before it enters a water body identified on the Buffer Protection Map;
      • Demonstrate treatment or protections from erosion and runoff pollution, including suspended solids, sediment, and sediment associated constituents at least equivalent to what a buffer would provide; and
      • Consider the stability of soils, shores, and banks.[8]

* In order to get an “alternative practice” approved by the BWSR, a land owner must submit a proposal form in a format prescribed by the BWSR that includes the proposed practices and the methods that will serve as evidence that comparable water quality protections will be achieved.[9] Within 90 days of receipt of the proposal, the BWSR Executive Director will convene a technical advisory team to review the proposal and make a recommendation to the BWSR Buffers, Soils and Drainage Committee.[10] Within 90 days of the Committee recommendation, the BWSR Board will consider a recommendation from the Buffers, Soils and Drainage Committee for inclusion of the practice in the proposal as a BWSR-approved alternative water quality practice.[11]

Updates regarding implementation of the Buffer Law are published on an ongoing basis on the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources website, so be sure to check it frequently:  http://www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers/.



[1] Minn. Stat. 103F.48 Subd. 1(c).

[2] See Vegetative Establishment Goals (September 15, 2016), http://www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers/guidance/implementation/VegetativeEstablishment.pdf.

[4] Minn. Stat. 103F.48 Subd. 5(1). This section includes other specific exemptions to the Buffer Law requirements.

[6] Minn. Stat. 103F.48 Subd. 3(b)

[7] See Policy 4: Alternative Practices Implementation (August 25, 2016), http://www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers/policy/Approved/4_Practices_Implementation%20.pdf.

[8] Id.

[9] See Policy 5: Other Alternative Practices Approved by the Board (August 25, 2016), http://www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers/policy/Approved/5_Other_Practices%20.pdf.

[10] The ad-hoc technical team may include representatives from: BWSR, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the University of Minnesota, and USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service, as well as other experts the Executive Director invites to participate. See Policy 5: Other Alternative Practices Approved by the Board (August 25, 2016), http://www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers/policy/Approved/5_Other_Practices%20.pdf.

[11] See Policy 5: Other Alternative Practices Approved by the Board (August 25, 2016), http://www.bwsr.state.mn.us/buffers/policy/Approved/5_Other_Practices%20.pdf