Buffer Law

What is a Buffer Strip?

Buffer strips are small areas or strips of land in permanent vegetation placed in the landscape to help control pollutants and reduce other environmental concerns. They are designed to slow water runoff, provide shelter and stabilize riparian areas. Conservation buffers protect soil, improve air and water quality, enhance fish and wildlife habitat, and beautify the landscape. Strategically placed buffer strips can effectively mitigate the movement of sediment, nutrients, and pesticides.

What is the Buffer Law?

The buffer law is a new law signed by Governor Mark Dayton in 2015 requiring perennial vegetation buffers be installed along lakes, rivers, streams, and public drainage ditches. It is designed to help filter out phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediment as well as provide wildlife habitat.

What are the requirements of the Buffer Law?

The buffer law has separate requirements for public waters and public drainage systems.

  • For Public Waters a 50 foot average width, 30 foot minimum width, continuous buffer.
  • For Public Drainage Systems a 16.5 foot minimum width continuous buffer.

How long do I have to install my buffers?

There are two deadlines to have your buffers established:

  • For Public Waters the deadline was November 1, 2017.
  • For Public Drainage Systems the deadline was November 1, 2018.

What if I need more time?

  • There are waivers available to landowners that cannot make the fall 2017 deadline. If you were unable to to plant your buffer this fall, but plan on planting the buffer this spring please stop by the SWCD to go over options available.

DNR Buffer Map

The DNR has released a map of all waters in the state that need to be buffered along with the designations of the waters.

To view this map for yourself and see the designation on your property click here.

What does it take to be considered Compliant?

To be compliant with the buffer law you must establish a continuous buffer of perennially rooted vegetation. The buffers must meet the width requirements and meet the vegetative standards of:

  • 80% total ground coverage of vegetation (Perennial, Annual, and Biannual)
  • 75% of the total vegetation must be perennial.
  • No areas larger than 300 sq feet of bare ground.

How is compliance tracked?

Compliance is determined on a parcel by parcel, not field, basis. If you own multiple parcels along a water body each parcel must meet compliant standards separately. Additionally each bank of a water body must meet standards independently as well (See Example 1).

Where are these buffers measured from?

Buffers must be measured from the top, or crown, of the bank. The definition of “top of bank” is the first major change in slope (+/- 10 degrees) of the incline from the Normal Water Level of a body of Water AND The land surface is vegetated or is regularly used for cultivated farming. If there is no definable bank measure from the edge of the normal water level.

Can I get assistance measuring off and flagging my buffer area?

Yes, we have technicians on staff that can come out to your land and flag off your buffer area upon request. Please give us a call to set up a date and time.

Will the government be paying for these buffers?

No, but it is possible to get payments from enrolling the land in conservation programs such as CRP or CREP.

Brown County will be paying landowners for public ditch buffers as part of a right-of-way easement upon completion of the Redetermination of Benefits (ROB) process for ditch systems (More on that below).

What options do I have?


  • The Buffer Law does not restrict the use of haying established buffers so long as it is done in a manner that maintains the perennial vegetation.
  • The law allows for temporary tillage to seed and/or reestablish alfalfa and/or other perennial vegetation.


  • The Buffer Law does not restrict the use of grazing established buffers so long as it is done in a manner that maintains the perennial vegetation
  • Significantly inhibited vegetation from livestock traffic or overgrazing could result in a non compliant designation and require corrective actions.


  • The Buffer Law provides an exemption to the buffer requirements for lands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
  • This is a way to still make money off the land while the buffer is in place.
  • CRP acreage is currently full (New Enrollment TBD).


  • The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is a permanent easement program that landowners may enroll their land into.
  • There is currently an open sign up for the program, if you are interested stop by our office or give us a call for more information.


  • Land certified in the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program is automatically deemed compliant by the buffer law.

Alternative Practices

  • It is possible to meet the requirements of the buffer law by using a combination of alternative practices that can provide comparable benefits to a buffer strip
    • Example of Alternative Practices are: cover crops, no-till, grass waterways, and negative slope.
  • Here is a list of possible alternative practices.

What is the penalty for not installing a buffer?

For Brown County the Board of Water & Soil Resources will be handling enforcement of the buffer law. Their policy for administering penalties and and the amount of fines can be read here.

What about the Redetermination of Benefits for public ditch systems?

Brown County is currently in the process of redetermining the benefits of all of its ditch systems. Upon redetermination the county will acquire the 16.5 buffer as part of a ditch right-of-way easement. You will still need to have the buffers in place by November 1, 2018 even if your ditch system won’t be redetermined until a later date. Please contact us if you have any questions about the redetermination process.

Common Questions?

Does my buffer need to be planted with native grasses?

No, any perennial vegetation will meet the requirements.

Does the law require fencing to keep cattle out of the water?

No, there is no restrictions in the buffer law to fence cattle out of water.

Is fertilizer application or pesticide spraying allowed on the buffer area?

Follow existing requirements and best management practices when applying fertilizer or pesticides.

To be compliant with the deadlines established by law, does the buffer need to be growing by the deadline or be seeded by the deadline?

If the buffer area is seeded by the deadline it will be deemed compliant.

Why is my waterway considered a public water on the Buffer Map.

Any natural or altered waterway (including ditches) that drained more than two square miles of land that had a definable bed and bank at the time of Public Water Inventory designation was considered a public water.

Are private ditches exempt from the buffer law?

Yes however there may be cases where a landowner thinks he or she has a private ditch, but it’s actually a public water.

Where can I go for more information?

Feel free to stop by our office or give us a call with any questions you might have. Some other good resources on the buffer law include:

For more information on buffers strips in general:

Ongoing Compliance Tracking Plan Beginning November 2, 2018:  Brown SWCD Monitoring Plan For Buffer Compliance Tracking

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