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Dayton lays out conservation plan

This is a map of the proposed conservation plan area.

Gov. Mark Dayton wants the state and the federal government to spend nearly $800 million to improve water quality by taking 100,000 acres out of crop production in Western and Southern Minnesota.

Half of the land would become vegetated buffers between crops and bodies of water, with other land targeted to be restored as wetlands and returned to permanent vegetation.

Dayton on Tuesday asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a $634 million Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program grant and proposed to set aside $161 million from the state.

The state would pay for its portion of the project with borrowed money, state lottery profits and a fund voters established in 2008 for outdoors and arts projects. Most of the Minnesota portion would need legislative approval.

The state already has appropriated $35 million for the buffer project.

The application indicates the goal of taking 100,000 acres out of cropland would be to keep streams free of 32,000 pounds of phosphorus per year, 2.4 million pounds of nitrogen and 205,000 tons of sediment.

The project would encompass 54 counties, including Douglas County, and 24 million acres in an area roughly southwest of a line from east of Moorhead to the Twin Cities and south along the Mississippi River. That is the part of Minnesota with the most agriculture runoff into streams and lakes, with water picking up chemicals and soil along the way.

Dayton’s centerpiece conservation program requires vegetation between cropland and water to help stop pollution, including soil, from getting into the water. Legislators approved the program earlier this year.

“We have begun to reverse the serious deterioration in the quality of water in parts of our state,” Dayton said. “But much more remains to be done. This is everyone’s challenge and everyone’s responsibility.”

Dayton administration officials say they hope to begin talking to federal authorities about Dayton’s funding request early in 2016.

“Those are details we are still barely getting into,” Tim Koehler of the Board of Water and Soil Resources said when asked for specifics about the plan.

Landowners do not know specifically which bodies of water will need buffers. The state Department of Natural Resources next year plans to release maps showing what water needs 50-foot buffers, what needs 16.5-foot buffers and where no buffers are needed.

Some buffers must be in place in 2017, some in 2018.

The governor has said he plans to convene a water quality summit in February, but details have not been announced.

The water quality issue rose in importance after a report surfaced saying that most Southwestern Minnesota waters are unsafe for swimming or fishing.

Calls seeking farm group reaction to Dayton’s application were not immediately returned.