Skip to main content

Effective Alternatives for Minnesota's Buffer Law

Buffer Alternatives on Gebardt's Farm
Effective Alternatives for Minnesota's Buffer Law

Location:  Mower County, Minnesota
Client:  Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council


Since its implementation in 2016, Minnesota's Buffer Law has generated widespread discussions on how landowners can achieve compliance with the legislation. In the soybean growing areas of Minnesota, many landowners and staff at soil and water conservation districts (SWCD) have wrestled with how to approve alternative practices under this law. The law gives landowners the option to install a 50-foot buffer (16.5 feet on some watercourses) or alternative practices that provide similar water quality treatment for the regulated watercourse. The Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council (MSR&PC), with the help of Houston Engineering, Inc. (HEI), has developed a framework that helps determine whether if landowners are or can become compliant with the Buffer Law while using alternative practices. To prove the framework is a viable option, the MSR&PC needed a farm leader willing to work with their SWCD and use the framework to get alternative practices approved. The Gebhardt brothers in Mower County were more than happy to tell their conservation story of being Buffer Law compliant. 

The Project

HEI led an effort to develop a framework for getting alternative practices approved. Developing this framework required HEI to guide and facilitate discussions with policymakers, state agency leadership and staff, landowners, and local governments like the Mower SWCD. HEI was successful in engaging and guiding the policy and implementation discussion around alternative practices at all of these levels, eventually gaining acceptance of the MSR&PC's alternatives framework as a method that can be used to evaluate alternative practices. HEI created a template for alternative practices as a checklist to help landowners demonstrate their compliance with buffer laws. 

The culmination of these efforts was working directly with the Mower SWCD and the Gebhardt family to get one of the first-ever approved alternative practices under the Buffer Law.

It's a Family Affair

Jim, along with his brothers Mike and Bob, grow corn and soybeans and is a member of both the Soybean Growers and Corn Growers associations. It just so happens that one of their parcels made it on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Buffer Map. This very same parcel earned their dad, Bill, the Conservation Farmer of the Year Award from the Mower SWCD in 1985 due to the number of conservation practices that were implemented and are still functioning 31 years later! 

Results that Speak Volumes

Jim was very interested in working with the Mower SWCD to show how landowners comply with the Buffer Law while using conservation practices that fit the way they farm and provide significant water quality benefits. HEI teamed with the Mower SWCD to complete a technical analysis of the water quality benefits of the Gebhardts' existing conservation efforts compared to what the 50-foot buffer would provide using the alternatives framework developed by MSR&PC. The results showed that the Gebhardts' practices were providing over three times more sediment reduction to public water than a 50-foot buffer! This is without considering the conservation tillage system the Gebhardts have been using for many years on this property. Also, their 15-foot minimum width buffer, which stretches to more than 250 feet wide in some areas, provides adequate stream bank stability and treatment of runoff reaching the public water, while complying with the policies laid out by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. 

In addition to addressing water quality concerns, they are achieving water detention benefits as a result of upland storage provided by the basins that help downstream flooding and altered hydrology issues. The analysis indicated that the basins could hold 2.5 acre-feet (over 800,000 gallons) of water.

This was a prime example of where HEI integrated information from multiple sources to take desktop tools and data to a boots-on-the-ground decision. HEI partnered with the Mower SWCD to evaluate the conservation practices already on a land parcel owned by the Gebhardts and successfully showed that these conservation practices were more than sufficient for compliance with the Buffer Law.

The Gebhardts’ story shows how alternative practices under the Buffer Law hold the potential to provide win-win opportunities for landowners and Minnesota’s water quality concerns.

Watch the video below to hear from Jim and Justin about these alternatives practices and the buffer law.