ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Republican state lawmakers are working to delay and change Governor Dayton's signature clean water initiative, a rule requiring buffer strips of permanent vegetation along rural waterways.

The natural resources bill pending in the legislature would delay implementation of the rule, now scheduled to take effect in November of 2017, by one to two years depending on the type of stream.. There's also a provision that would peel back the width of the buffers from 50 feet to 16.5 feet on either side of a waterway.

The proposal has drawn opposition from outdoors groups such as Pheasants Forever and Trout Unlimited.

"Statewide we will lose the 50-foot protection in 24,000 miles of streams, if they make this change," Tony Nelson of the Twin Cities chapter of Trout Unlimited told KARE.

He said when his organization restores trout streams the goal is a 66-foot vegetation buffer between the water and the cropland. But the growers fare better too, he asserted.

"The farmers, they need this to keep their soil on their land, their chemicals where they put them."

Dayton's buffer rule, passed in 2015 and modified in 2016, is designed to keep silt and farm chemicals from polluting Minnesota streams and lakes. The grasses in the buffers can act as a natural filter, as well as a physical barrier to soil erosion.

Some of the waters in southern and western Minnesota farm country have been deemed unsafe to fish and swim in, based on phosphorous and nitrogen loads. 

The Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, of BWSR, is tasked with the role of enforcing the rule and dealing with farmers with unusual circumstances.  

"It’s a 50-foot average, so you may have areas where there’s a bend in the river where it has to go to 30 feet, but as long as that average is 50 feet they're fine," Rep. Rick Hansen explained.

And a recent federal grant will enable more farmers to enroll their buffer strip land into the federal Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, and be paid for the acres they set aside for those buffers.

In Castle Rock

Rep. Hansen, a South St. Paul Democrat and longtime member of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, summoned the media Friday to a stream in Castle Rock Township in rural Dakota County, to display the stark contrast between a farm with buffers and one without them.

Farmer Ken Betzold installed a 50-foot buffer on either side of North Branch Chub Creek, which runs into the Cannon River. He also converted a nearby field into native prairie plants, to further minimize the impact of farmland runoff.

"If you do get a little washing in the field, the buffer stops it from getting in the water, and it kind of builds up, there so you don’t lose the soil," Betzold, who farms corn, soybeans and canning vegetables, told KARE.

The land just across the road is cultivated virtually to the banks of the creek, an example of why Dayton and other clean water advocates wanted the buffer program in the first place.

Betzold said the State should do all it can to compensate farmers for participating in the buffer program, especially with crop prices depressed. But he doesn't view it as a make-or-break situation.

"And the few acres that you lose, on any farm, won’t make the difference between whether you can keep farming, or not as far as that goes. If that's the difference between me making it or going broke, I guess I'm going to go broke anyway."

Sandy Weber, who serves on the Castle Rock Township Board, said more farmers are accepting the buffer idea as the benefits of the program are explained.

"We have done many things to put in buffers down here, to encourage farmers," Weber said. "It's an education process for us."

And Rep. David Bly, a Northfield Democrat, said there's no need to delay implementation of the buffer plan. He said as the soil board and other groups get farmers more engaged in the process compliance won't be an issue.

Clean water may be the top issue for some, but the buffer strips also provide important wildlife habitat at a time in history where native species are having a harder time finding places to live and reproduce.

Mark Henry, one of the chapter presidents for Pheasants Forever, said it's not just about protecting birds.

"There’s a big concern about pollinators for agriculture, and these kinds of things provide their food," Henry said, while looking at the wild grasses growing on the Betzold farm.

"Historically when this area was first homesteaded there was three feet of top soil, but that’s going away, migrating down the Mississippi."

Henry, an excavating contractor who grades the Castle Rock Township Roads, says he knows the farmers and understands their struggles.

"These farmers are our friends and neighbors. We needed them to be treated right," Henry said.

But he said outdoors groups like his are becoming more actively involved in defending the buffer strip program.

"We're not trying to condemn anybody. We're just trying to get to the middle."