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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Riparian Buffers

Air Date: Week of February 20, 1998

Before the days of dams and levees, great rivers used to overflow from time to time and drop nutrients in their wake. Plants in the resulting flood plains would in turn help purify the water and limit erosion. Today, in Minnesota, there's a federal conservation program in which farmers are being encouraged to turn riverfront cropland into meadow lands. These green buffers take advantage of nature's own water purification and soil protection systems. Minnesota Public Radio's Mark Steil has our report.


CURWOOD: Before the days of dams and levees, great rivers used to overflow from time to time and leave nutrients in their wake. Plants in the resulting floodplains would in turn help purify the water and limit erosion. Today in Minnesota, thanks to a new conservation program with the state and Federal government, farmers are being encouraged to turn riverfront crop land into meadow lands. These green buffers take advantage of nature's own water purification and soil protection systems. Minnesota Public Radio's Mark Steil has our report.

STEIL: The Minnesota River had its worst flood in recorded history last spring. The high water carried off tons of topsoil from farm fields, adding to the sediment problem in the state's most polluted stream.

(Footfalls through snow)

STEIL: Farmer Douglas Bandemer says it could have been worse. He walks through his snow-covered field near the Minnesota River and points out tufts of brown grass poking through the crusty snow. He says that grass was the secret to limiting flood damage on his land.

BANDEMER: You can definitely see where the soil was held back by the vegetation. When I walked out in the field after the water went down, I think I gained about an inch of extra soil, just from the filtering effect of the water running over my land. And I think that's quite a benefit to the river, and it's a benefit to everybody downstream.

STEIL: Mr. Bandemer has enrolled much of his river valley land in a patchwork of government conservation programs, which pay him to not farm the fields. But these agreements expire every few years and the cost of the protection accumulates over time. In contrast, the new partnership between the US Agriculture Department and Minnesota will offer farmers a one-time payment roughly equal to the land's market value, and help them convert crop land to grass- and tree-covered meadows for good. The Environmental Defense Fund's Tim Searchinger has been pushing the partnership idea with USDA and a number of states.

SEARCHINGER: My hope is that in the next few years we will get a couple of million. My hope is more than 3 million acres restored. And we will start to see a resurgent movement in the United States toward demanding that government assist in recreating the water bodies that were really part of our natural heritage.

STEIL: Last fall, Maryland became the first state to try this so-called conservation reserve enhancement idea. Land managers believe the riverside green buffers will remove much of the water damaging nitrogen and phosphorus entering Chesapeake Bay. The same types of problems exist in the fertile farm land along the Minnesota River. Mr. Searchinger says water runoff into the river is laden with soil and farm chemicals.

SEARCHINGER: This plan will significantly cut that back, and restore the flood plain and riparian areas around most of the main stem of the Minnesota River and probably half of the tributary areas. So they will serve a very valuable filtering function. The different tributaries of the Mississippi have lost from 70% to 95% of the flood plain areas.

STEIL: But to succeed, the clean-up effort will have to clear a major barrier. Farmers are generally suspicious of government programs that want them to take land out of production.

CANTON: That seems to be a tough bill for most of the land owners to swallow.

STEIL: Kent Kanten farms in the Minnesota River Basin. He also serves on the US Agriculture Department Advisory Committee, which helps shape the river clean-up program. Although participation in the program is voluntary, he says the idea of a permanent agreement exchanging farming rights for cash will be difficult to sell, because land owners don't want to limit what their heirs can do.

KANTEN: Somewhere down the road there is no income and some restrictions on what can be done with the land, not only as far as agriculture but other things. For recreation, too. And most people don't want to be tied to that.

(Running water)

STEIL: But Minnesota officials are counting on farmers like Douglas Bandemer, who dream of returning the river to what it was decades ago.

BANDEMER: When I was a young boy, I used to fish with my grandfather, and the river hardly had any carp in it and it was good walleye fishing and good catfish fishing, and we had croppies in the river. And it was hardly any mud, it was big sand bars. We had a lot of clams down there. Now there's no clams that I know of, and I don't know of any clean sand bars.

STEIL: Minnesota officials expect Mr. Bandemer and others like him will retire a third of the flood-prone land in the River Basin, about 100,000 acres over the next 4 years. If the permanent agreements don't sell, the state may offer some shorter-term contracts of 30 years. Illinois is expected to announce a similar program soon. If the idea of farmers restoring streams catches on across the Midwest, the murky-brown waters that feed the Mississippi could one day run clear. For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Steil in Worthington, Minnesota.



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