Conservation Topic: Buzz About Buffers

Buffers, also known as filter strips, are an important tool in the soil and water conservation tool box.  They are typically located along streams, rivers and lakes to slow the flow of water from the surrounding landscape and filter out pollutants such as phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment found in the runoff after snow melt and rain events.  They also help to stabilize shorelines during flood events provided they have plants with good root structures.  Buffers can be grasses, trees or even crops such as alfalfa.  Some are native plants but not all. Minnesota has actually had a law requiring shoreland (aka riparian) buffers since 1989 but knowledge about the law and enforcement was spotty at best.  It was time for a reboot.

In June of 2015 Governor Dayton signed the new statewide Buffer Law to help protect and improve the quality of our streams, rivers and lakes in Minnesota.  After some tweaking and clarifications during the spring 2016 legislative session this new law is ready to go.  Buffers of some kind of perennial vegetation will be required on public waters and public drainage systems.  There is no requirement for private drainage systems but having that buffer is certainly a good idea.

Under the law, buffer widths will be:

  • An average of 50 feet, minimum of 30 feet, on public waters

  • A minimum of 16.5 feet on public drainage systems

The Minnesota DNR is finalizing an online version of a map so landowners can see what type of water body is on their land to determine buffer needs. Local landowners and conservation staff have been giving input into these maps to help make them as accurate as possible. The maps should be ready later in July 2016.  To view the map showing how waters are classified and the type of buffer required go to:   

Buffers will need to be in place on public waters by November 1, 2017 and on public drainage systems by November 1, 2018.  This summer and fall is a good time to plan what you’ll need to do.  If you rent land be sure to talk to your renters about this requirement and have a plan you both agree to follow.

 buffer.jpgExample of a stream with a 100 foot buffer on one side and little buffer on the other.
Photo taken May 2016 by RTC staff.

The Board of Water and Soil Resources is the lead state agency for oversight of this rule and have enforcement authority should Counties or Watershed Districts be unable to do so.  Lots of useful information can be found on their website at: as well as this basic summary fact sheet

Local Soil and Water Conservation District staff are available to help meet with landowners and visit your land to help sort through what is required and assist with designing the buffers.  Some funds may be available to assist with the cost. (Landowner Financial Options for Buffers (MN Board of Water and Soil Resources - pdf).  If you’ve never met your local county Soil & Water Conservation District staff this is a great opportunity to do that.   

While this can seem overwhelming, by starting soon, meeting with helpful staff, and putting your plan into action you will help to make our waters cleaner for us and future generations.  Thank you!