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How Things Change: Slowly, With Several Complementary Tactics

April 29, 2014Patrick NunnallyFormer Featured PostsComments Off on How Things Change: Slowly, With Several Complementary Tactics

The Minneapolis Star Tribune posted an article this week that continues discussion of the connections between farmland runoff and river pollution in important new ways.  Well, maybe “new” to me, but obvious and well known to everyone else.

Here’s the deal: despite being the only state in the country that mandates the preservation of a 50 foot vegetated buffer along all streams and rivers, most of the affected waters are not buffered.  A detailed aerial survey shows that some small watersheds in the agricultural part of the state have practically no buffers, while others have achieved 100% coverage.

What gives with this distinction?

In most cases, it turns out to be a matter of the priorities a county puts on the issue.  The state agencies responsible are reluctant to come down hard on counties, although many clean water advocates think the state should do more.  Some counties and watershed districts simply don’t know the law, while others are reluctant to ruffle feathers in small communities by pushing for action from individual farmer/neighbors.

Blue Earth County, on the other hand, recognizes that “our rivers are highly valued,” to quote a county land use planner.  Blue Earth County officials targeted over 300 landowners whose buffers needed improvement and so far about 2/3 have responded well.  Persuading the laggards, though, is the hard part, and this particular official suggests that the county’s policy makers and county attorney’s office need to be committed here as well.

And that gets to the heart of the matter, a place where complexity reigns.  County officials feel the need for a push from the state, while state officials are reluctant to overreach.  Within a county, different offices have to share the commitment for change.  All of these conditions can be met when the value of rivers is better recognized and more widely shared.

Sounds simple, but the arguments to value rivers will differ with local conditions.  Understanding and responding to those conditions is a matter of listening, listening again, and then working together for change.

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