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Supervisors Adopt Buffer Strip Resolution

By Staff | May 5, 2011

A practice tied to a federal program is on the outs in Palo Alto County, following the introduction and adoption of a resolution by the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning. Buffer strips, or tracts of grass lining the edges of open drainage ditches, will be banned in accordance with the resolution adopted at the May 3 meeting of the supervisors.

The action by the local supervisors follows a joint meeting of the trustees of Tri-Joint Drainage District 84 at the Kossuth County Courthouse on April 26. In that meeting, the supervisors from Kossuth, Palo Alto and Emmet Counties, acting as the trustees of the tri-joint district, introduced and adopted a resolution banning the placement of buffer strips and plantings adjacent to drainage facilities. The resolution addressed what are known as buffer strips that are placed at the edges of drainage ditches as a way to reduce erosion and as a way to provide right-of-way access to drainage ditches and facilities for repairs and maintenance. As many of the buffer strips are enrolled in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), any time work needed to be done on a drainage facility, landowners would obtain waivers from the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which oversees CRP lands, to allow the disturbance of the CRP land in the buffer strip, with the understanding that the buffer strip would be restored once the work were finished.

However, in late 2009, new regulations from the FSA implemented a “Nesting Season” restriction for buffer strips, forbidding any disturbance of the buffer strip from May 15 to August 1 of each year, citing that timeframe as the primary nesting season. Any CRP participant who violates the nesting season restriction is subject to substantial farm program penalties.

The restriction also created enormous headaches for drainage trustees, as the prime construction season was being severely cut due to the CRP restriction. It was that consideration that finally brought about the creation of the resolution.

Drainage Attorney James Hudson crafted the resolution that was introduced by the supervisors on Tuesday. In the resolution, Hudson noted that buffer strips have positive benefits for environmentally sensitive areas. However, the nesting season restriction creates a clear and obvious interference to drainage district easements and the duties of drainage district trustees in maintaining and repairing ditches and facilities. To that end, the resolution cited the Code of Iowa and a conflict between the restriction and the Code.

“Whereas Iowa Code Section 468.149, 468.150 and other salient sections of the code of Iowa provide that there is to be no interference with the proper preservation, operation or maintenance of drainage district facilities and further provides that individual counties and joint drainage districts may provide by resolution activities which are deemed nuisances which can be prosecuted as a serious misdemeanor and/or abated by nuisance abatement procedures. It is necessary to adopt a resolution to implement and enforce these code sections.”

The resolution then resolves “the enrollment or re-enrollment of land lying on or adjacent to a drainage district facility into the CRP after the date of the adoption of this resolution is declared to be an interference as above defined and said enrollment or re-enrollment is declared a nuisance.”

Under the resolution, the board may grant exemptions to landowners on a case-by-case basis if they choose to remain enrolled in CRP programs with their existing buffer strips.

The resolution will remain in effect until “The USDA terminates the Conservation Reserve Program and when all DRP contracts on lands adjacent to or on drainage district facilities have expired,” or in the alternative “When the Board has determined that the FSA has permanently rescinded the prohibition against disturbing CRP lying on or adjacent to drainage district facilities during the primary nesting season (May 15 August 1) and all existing and future CRP contracts have been amended to reflect this permanent change.”

Supervisor Ron Graettinger moved to introduce and approve the resolution with Supervisor Leo Goeders offering a second. On a roll call vote, the resolution passed on a 4-0 vote, with Supervisor Ed Noonan absent and not voting.