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SB 136 Promotes Grassy Buffer Strips, Conservation, and Wildlife

The Senate advanced one bad bill for agriculture, the environment, and citizen participation last week; now the House has a chance to pass one good bill for agriculture, the environment, and farmer choice.

The good bill is Senate Bill 136, what prime sponsor Senator Jim Peterson (D-4/Revillo) calls the “buffer strip” bill. SB 136 offers farmers who take land alongside lakes, streams, and rivers out of cultivation and plant grass. These grassy buffer strips, no more than fifty feet wide, would act as natural filters to slow runoff and keep pollutants out of lakes and streams. As Senator Peterson pointed out in testimony before Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources on February 11, those grassy strips would also serve as outstanding habitat for pheasant, deer, and other game and wildlife. In return for this voluntary conservation effort, SB 136 would allow counties to change the assessment of those restored riparian zones from cropland to noncropland, lowering the taxes on those acres.

Minnesota passed a law last year requiring 50-foot riparian buffer zones along its waters last year. SB 136 is entirely voluntary. Anybody who wants to plant corn right up to the creek can keep doing so. SB 136 is an incentive, not a penalty.

No legislator has voted against SB 136 in Senate Ag, the full Senate, or House Ag. The only opposition in testimony has come from the Department of Revenue and the South Dakota Corn Growers Association. DOR’s Mike Houdyshell and Corn Growers’ lobbyist Matt McCaulley say they’re all for conservation and wildlife. They just don’t like the tax implications of SB 136. Both expressed concern to Senate Ag that we don’t know how many acres would be affected by SB 136, how much land valuation we would lose, and how much tax burden we’d have to shift to other taxpayers. (The Corn Growers have opposed other measures to ease the tax burden on conservation-minded farmers who protect grasslands.)

Revenue and the Corn Growers are right: we can’t know how much land would be affected, since we can’t know how many farmers would choose to participate in the program and how many acres they’d take out of production.

But we can do math and figure out a logical upper bound for the tax impact of putting grassy strips along the Big Sioux River, which has been in the news lately for being really ooky.

  1. The Big Sioux River is 419 miles long.
  2. About two thirds of the river is entirely in South Dakota; the last third separates South Dakota and Iowa. So at most, SB 136 could address assessed value of the entire west bank and the northern two-thirds of the east bank. That’s 419 × 1.67 = 698 miles of shoreline.
  3. A 50-foot buffer strip one mile long is 6.06 acres (yes, yes, rivers are wiggly—let’s not introduce fractal analysis into the problem)
  4. 698 shoreline miles × 6.06 acres/mile = 4,240 total acres to plant buffer strips along every South Dakota mile of the Big Sioux River.
  5. In Senate Ag, Senator Peterson said the difference in taxes he pays on his cropland and his noncropland is $12 an acre. Houdyshell pointed to some choice streamside cropland in Moody County that, under SB 136, could be assessed down to pay $28.89 less per acre.
  6. The total tax cost under SB 136 of turning every South Dakota mile of the Big Sioux shoreline (including Falls Park) into a riparian buffer zone would range between $50,900 and $123,000.

These figures are absurd maxima, because they assume that every foot of Big Sioux shoreline is currently taxed and cultivated as cropland. A drive through Canton, Sioux Falls, or Brookings County will show that’s not the case. SB 136 doesn’t give Cherapa Place a tax break, no matter what they plant. Plus—or in this case, minus—we have to figure only a fraction of the fraction of landowners currently cropping along the Big Sioux would take the SB 136 deal.

But even if the total tax cost for incentivizing a complete grassification of the Big Sioux shores came close to the range suggested by the above numbers, it would still be a small fraction of the seven figures Sioux Falls plans to spend encouraging country folks to keep cow poop out of the river. It would also be a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the Corn Growers spend on TV ads to convince us that they are True Environmentalists™.

Senator Jason Frerichs (D-1/Wilmot) mentioned that Corn Growers’ marketing expenditure in Senate Ag and reminded us that those ads are his corn check-off dollars at work. Senator Frerichs said he wouldn’t mind putting some of his money (and ours) where the Corn Growers’ mouth is and encourage buffer strips with the SB 136 tax incentive.

Those check-off dollars could be another reason the Corn Growers would grouse about a program. If every bushel of corn harvested puts a penny in the Corn Growers’ ad budget, and if every acre can produce 148 bushels of corn (that’s the USDA’s reported average yield for South Dakota in 2014), then persuading farmers to take 4,240 acres out of corn and seeding it to grass deprives the Corn Growers of $6,280 in check-off money. Dang—that might cover a whole month of Matt McCaulley’s lobbying fees!

But with 787 million bushels of corn generating $7.87 million in corn check-off dollars, the Corn Growers surely won’t begrudge no more than an 0.08% ding to keep the Big Sioux River clean. Rep. Mark Mickelson (R-13/Sioux Falls) himself said in testimony for his pro-CAFO bill last week that the lack of grassy strips is one of the big reasons so much pollution flows through his town; surely Rep. Mickelson will join the unanimous wave of sentiment in favor of Senate Bill 136, a sensible, low-tech, and voluntary program to improve South Dakota’s water quality and wildlife.

Senate Bill 136 is on the House calendar for tomorrow, Monday, starting at 2 p.m. Central.


  1. Paul Seamans 2016-03-06 16:07

    People like Sen. Jim Peterson are attempting to head off problems before they get worse. The city of Des Moines is suing three counties/water districts because of the excessive nitrates in their drinking water. Voluntary efforts, such as filter strips, didn’t work. I believe that the court date is set for August. This case could reverberate across the country. Does the South Dakota legislature want to help solve the problem or do they want the courts to decide. The day of free passes to farmers is coming to an end.

    Cory, I appreciate your mathefication on this. Groups such as the Corn Growers are going to fight any common sense legislation such as this.

  2. Shirley Moore 2016-03-06 16:08

    Riparian buffer strips are an excellent idea. The grass strips help hold back sediment but do little to stop chemicals in the spring runoffs. The Corn growers would farm township and county roads right up to the roadbed if they could. Greed is a terrible thing. Fence lines are gone, tree claims have been torn out and wildlife have little or no place to nest and hide. Yet the Sioux Falls hunters want to hunt every square inch they can. Hunting is an old sport but nowadays you can drive for miles and not see many birds. Time to cut back on the corn growers greed and give the wildlife a break. Please, legislators, VOTE FOR SB 136. Thank you.

  3. mike from iowa 2016-03-06 16:28

    Is the amount of tax revenues last at first offset by the prevention of more pollution entering lakes and streams? Buffer strips are very good for the environment,but won’t totally stabilize shorelines or river banks in times of flood. They will need to be adjusted as the banks erode away. Just a fact of life that the rivers change course and lakes and ponds silt in over time.

  4. Paul Seamans 2016-03-06 16:42

    Within the past week the SCOTUS has declined to hear a lawsuit by the Farm Bureau and 22 states to stop the EPA’s plan to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay. This is considered a victory for clean water advocates. Don’t these farm group members also need clean drinking water?

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-03-06 19:35

    Glad to mathify, Paul! This is a case where I’m happy to emphasize that my numbers are most surely wrong: SB 136 won’t see nearly that much land along the Big Sioux actually enrolled in the incentive program. My wild numbers offer a better-than-best ceiling.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-03-06 19:58

    Mike, good question about cost offsets. Can we find any numbers that talk about the cost of restoring water quality in a polluted watershed?

    Changing shorelines—that does complicate the math! I wonder how often and how much those changes currently affect farmers and county assessors.

  7. Paul Seamans 2016-03-06 22:01

    When there is a nitrate surge in the Raccoon River and the city of Des Moines has to turn on their denitrification equipment it cost them $4000 per day. There has been some talk of building an additional denitrification plant at an estimated cost of $80 million to $180 million.

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-03-07 06:22

    Thanks, Paul! Now we’d need to know how much nitrates 50-foot buffer strips can keep out of a river… but I’m willing to but that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of denitrification plant operations.

  9. larry kurtz 2016-03-07 07:29

    Nobody cares. South Dakota is a chemical toilet where people go to die.

  10. MC 2016-03-07 07:51

    This a good bill that makes good sense.

  11. Nick Nemec 2016-03-07 08:10

    I’m curious, who decides which lakes, streams and rivers qualify for the grassy buffer strips? Does a grass strip along a draw qualify or does this proposal only apply to certain designated areas? Does it also allow for the fencing of riparian areas so livestock are kept out of the creek?

  12. CJ 2016-03-07 08:15

    It doesn’t mention CRP but how much of the strips would qualify for enrollment? I heard that some of those payments are close to 200/ acre in some areas.

  13. Paul Seamans 2016-03-07 08:44

    This bill is a small first step in protecting our water. I applaud Sen. Jim Peterson in his attempt to start the conversation.

  14. Dave 2016-03-07 08:49

    it sounds like it would apply to “waters of the state” or blue lines on the old topo maps. This would extend buffer strips right up into farm fields. This would help for incentives to keep and maintain grassed water ways, most get spayed out or tilled through…
    I know there has been 3 or 4 watershed projects in the Big Sioux basin over the years who have spent millions of dollars on voluntary programs to better water quality.

  15. mike from iowa 2016-03-07 09:10

    I read John T’s article yesterday. Why ain’t this guy a Democrat or at least an Indy?

  16. mike from iowa 2016-03-07 09:26

    CRP will pay up to 50% of the costs to converting land into CRP,but you have to sign an agreement to keep it as such for 10-15 years. I believe CRP can be riparian buffer strips. You’d have to check for S Dakota.

    Buffer strips,while a big improvement,don’t work in floods or heavy rains. If the slope of the ground is too severe,they don’t work.

  17. Paul Seamans 2016-03-07 09:36

    Filter strips probably need to be a little wider than 50 feet in most cases. A lot of the chemical/fertilizer pollution is probably coming from tiled fields. Prior to tiling the wetlands would act as natural filters. Cattails are a good plant for removing pollution from water.

  18. John Wrede 2016-03-07 10:12

    Corey: The thinking on this still isn’t right……… Degredation of any stream or waterway begins in the watershead in elevations well above places like Sioux Falls….. Remember;;;;;;;;;; water flows down hill……… No amount of grass waterway along any part of the Big Sioux is going to stem damage already done nor will it clean up the mess from drainages and small streams flowing into it. Paul S is right…….. The first question to ask is, can the mess be cleaned up or even mitigated…. And furthermore, why should the public be responsible for cleaning up corporate Ag’s mess…….. This is a superfund site ripe for the EPA and there isn’t enough money in SD to pay to clean up that mess. The big Sioux River was polluted when I was in college and got worse during my career path in Eastern SD. All one needs to do is look at the disaster that Lake Pointsett is from channelization and ag run off. Grass waterways or buffer strips……….. Just another feel good exercise after the legislature gutted environmental protections for In Situ Uranium mining and associated, exaggerated economic development.

  19. mike from iowa 2016-03-07 10:13

    Paul,I don’t think tiled field filter strips are capable of helping much since the water flow is concentrated in a central point. I may be wrong.

  20. mike from iowa 2016-03-07 10:21

    John,the Red flows North-uphill. So does parts of the St Lawrence.

    Filter strips aren’t designed to fix past damages,they are to help slow down future damages,protect the stream banks and fields from erosion (to a degree). And most importantly-to show that we humans care enough about our environment and sustainability to try to fix man made problems.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-03-07 10:40

    John, I’ll agree we need to do more, like protecting our zoning regs from the CAFO operators who want to dump more manure into our lakes and streams. Putting grassy strips on the Big Sioux doesn’t remove current pollution, but it does reduce future pollution.

    So let me ask you this: is SB 136 better than doing nothing? Does it in have any disadvantage that outweighs the advantages of future pollution mitigation and improved wildlife habitat? Does it prevent us from taking other measures to clean up pollution?

  22. Paul Seamans 2016-03-07 11:17

    Filter strips are a good idea to slow down the water and allow sediments to settle out and are needed in conjunction with other efforts. Cattle need to be excluded from streams in the summer when they like to stand in water to cool off. Tiling of fields has allowed water, along with its chemicals, to more quickly drain from fields. The wetlands that this tiling drains were natures natural filters. Conservationists have been warning about the ill effects of draining of wetlands for decades. They were basically ignored and the chickens have now come home to roost.

  23. Wayne B. 2016-03-07 12:52


    I think John’s point was we need the riparian buffers on the entire Big Sioux watershed, not just the river proper. Same would go for the James River watershed, etc. Take the whole watershed’s linear footage, create acreage calculations, and multiply by some factor for actual participation and you get an estimate of tax revenue lost (and well-lost in my opinion!).

    I guess the question of the bill’s worth ultimately boils down to: is it acceptable for counties to receive less funding for local education & other operations to increase conservation activities and save counties & communities downstream the expense of treating non-point-source pollution?

    I say yes, but I like to kayak and kill pretty birds.

    Ultimately, I like voluntary options before mandatory requirements.

  24. John Wrede 2016-03-07 15:33

    Buffer strips and all sorts of other schemes have been a part of USDA’s tool box to stem erosion, pollution, eutrophication, nitrate contamination and so on since well before I started a natural resource management career in 1976. The first buffer strip practices were referred to as grass waterways on highly erodible landscapes that had been plowed out to produce wheat and small grain. More recently (2004 I believe) GFP seized upon the idea as a screen/barrier to keep geese from wondering out of the water, up the bank and into soy bean fields. Ask the obvious question: If those practices worked (they were voluntary) would we have the same problem as we have?
    While I agree that this is just a baby step and likely may do some good; it is far to little and far to late. We’ve had our heads buried in the sand for 3 decades and now seem to think that we can reverse all that damage with a voluntary tax break for a farmer that may or may not take advantage of it.
    Is it better than doing nothing; yes but that isn’t at all the point. Unless there is a well publicized and promoted plan and effort to expand mightily on this little baby step in the next five years, like everything else of it’s kind, there are going to be a majority of people that will simply call it good and forget it in 5 years. How many of you actually remember the Governors “Pheasant Plan”; intended to restore habitat to the landscape with 1 Million Dollars of public money? How is that working out for us – particularly in Western SD where native wildlife populations are in worse shape than the ditch parrot.
    We’ve been fooling around with “voluntary” programs now for at least 40 years. USDA has dumped billions into these sorts of practices and the problems we have with water quality and quantity continue to worsen and spread . Good grief, Rapid City has been fighting water quality issues in Rapid Creek now for over 25 years and a new study shows we’ve not made any progress at all and in fact, now have disease carrying candidate coliform bacteria. Why is that……… Because all we’re looking at is non-point source effects of the problem. Not only that but we have no stomach for researching and complying with state water law as it is written.
    We’re not going into the watersheds and doing the sort of work necessary to remove the problems we are finding down stream that everybody is concerned about. What good does it do to install a 50 foot by 1/4 mile grass buffer strip along the Sioux River in Moody County that doesn’t shed water directly into the Sioux River when there hundreds of miles of small streams and run off courses in Roberts, Coddington or Hamlin county as an example. What good does it do to install those strips without an honest assessment of whether or not land runs off directly into the Sioux River or not. When we have government supported tile drainage that runs hundreds of thousands of gallons of water into already silted and degraded small streams and ditches that drain into the Big Sioux, what sense does it make for that same government to provide tax incentives. We’re putting a snoopy adhesive bandage on a sucking chest wound and leading ourselves to believe that people will pick up where this effort leaves off and we’ll ultimately get a handle on that. I dislike sounding like a fatalist but SD has no history of that kind of behavior and I have no confidence that it will start now. Has anybody looked into the SDSU studies being conducted that are trying to engineer a way to contain water from tile drained fields and hope that it will eventually recharge underground aquifers without the nitrates, pollutants, and bacteria? The public is paying for that research and we’ve already spent more money on that investigation than the sum of potential tax breaks for farmers wanting to install buffer strips………… Can anybody say with confidence that Whitewood Creek would be cleaned up with voluntary practices by private landowners? Sorry but it’s not going to happen.

  25. mike from iowa 2016-03-07 15:49

    All together now,let’s all give up and quit!

  26. mike from iowa 2016-03-07 15:51

    Pack up the kids and let’s move to the new wilderness where we can start over and do it right this time.

  27. Paul Seamans 2016-03-07 16:17

    I have to agree with John Wrede that voluntary efforts to stop water pollution simply will not be effective. Will a CAFO owner who lives two states away give a damn about our rivers and streams? There are no simple answers. Maybe have the government buy every household a water distiller.

  28. mike from iowa 2016-03-07 16:31

    Iowa passed some stringent water testing and water protection rules,but the wingnut controlled house refused to fund such efforts. Then pols and Farm Burro got together to take away local control of cafo sitings and made it much easier to get permits to keep iowa numero uno in hogs and egg laying.

    The guy that owns the Minn Timberwolves is partners in some of iowa’s largest poultry/egg laying cafos. Think he might have some clout? iowa is home to some of the most impaired waterways and South Dakota is following in iowa’s footsteps. What we were,you are. What we are,you will be.

  29. Roger Elgersma 2016-03-07 16:55

    We already switched to a formula that taxes according to profitability rather than market value. So this matches the profit ability rate if the purpose is changed to protect the river. Makes sense to me.

  30. HydroGuy 2016-03-07 21:46

    Pertinent reading:

    Tiling is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. Re-plumbing an entire landscape and not expecting negative consequences is simply assinine. Whether it’s nitrate-laden water pouring out of sub-surface tile outfalls and contributing to the destruction of aquatic ecosystems all the way to the Gulf of Mexico or the toxic stew of sediments, phosphorus, E. coli (thanks CAFOs), herbicides, and pesticides that moves off fields into surface tile intakes which are mainlined directly to the nearest surface water feature, producers who choose to utilize drain tile are treating our rivers, wetlands, and lakes like sewers. Although you’d never guess it based on their most recent ad campaigns, SD Corn wholeheartedly supports this practice ( in their quest to maximize profits at all cost. Hypocrisy at its finest, I say. One need look no further than the water quality issues in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana to understand the true scope of the problem. As far as South Dakota is concerned, the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit mentioned by Paul Seamans is the only thing on the horizon that has the potential to stem this irreversible trend.

  31. John Wrede 2016-03-08 09:50

    Mike from Iowa: The Little Missouri River flows north into North Dakota into the Missouri River where waters end up in many points south. Water still flows down hill.

  32. leslie 2016-03-08 10:10

    mfi, is joni Ernst still laughing it up w/ rounds? the EPA WOTUS regs are mike’s most hated liberalism. clean water, don’t know whatchu got till its gone.

    krisie’s best pal ill. rep (r.) has gone missing, all (arron) schock & awe on ethics charges, costing millions in legal fees. I wonder who’s paying round’s lawyers to keep him clear of ethics charges for the messes and dead bodies he left on the banks and fields of the muddy mo after the flood and deluge of EB5 and MCEC as a result his governorship. what’s a little dirty water downstream and lawsuits the state will be forced to defend.

  33. mike from iowa 2016-03-08 10:20

    Ivana Kuturnutzov laughs??????

  34. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-03-08 11:59

    Voluntary programs may not solve the problem alone, but could they provide some data for some watersheds where they are adopted? Could they give us a leg up after demonstrating some benefits to advocate for larger programs?

    Wayne, fortunately, SB136 (passed by the House yesterday 58–9!) makes the tax break available to farmers regrassing farmland along any body of water, including all those Big Sioux tributaries. I didn’t want to go ape trying to calculate the riparian acreage of the whole state.

    Roger E reminds me that there is a whole nother reason to support this plan: tax fairness! It is silly to tax farmers on potential productivity of land rather than actual productivity and income. SB 136 taxes land more closely to its actual use.

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