This technical document provides an overview of the process and considerations conducted by Soil and Water Conservation Districts when assisting landowners in implementing the Alternative Practices provision in the Minnesota Buffer Law. Additionally, this document details a set of common alternative practices that may be a useful start for landowners interested in water quality protection options comparable to a buffer and to SWCDs in offering alternative practices implementation support and validation.

What Statute Says

The Buffer Law was amended in 2017 to make several changes to the alternative practices provision, which are shown below. Significant changes are to codify the common alternative practices and to require they be adopted by the Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR).

“A landowner owning property adjacent to a water body identified in a buffer protection map and whose property is used for cultivation farming may meet the requirements… …by adopting an alternative riparian water quality practice, or combination of structural, vegetative, and management practices, based on the Natural Resources Conservation Service Field Office Technical Guide, common alternative practices adopted and published by the board, other practices approved by the board, or practices based on local conditions approved by the local soil and water conservation district that are consistent with the Field Office Technical Guide, that provide water quality protection comparable to the buffer protection for the water body that the property abuts.” See §103F.48, Subd. 3.

Buffer and Alternative Practices Benefits

Buffers provide multiple benefits for water quality, including stabilizing the bank, absorbing nutrients, preventing erosion and sedimentation into ditches, streams, rivers and lakes, and filtering pollutants such as excess pesticides and fertilizers. In some situations, alternative practices will provide comparable water quality benefits and may be more appropriate to fit site conditions and land management objectives. 


Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) have the authority and expertise to work with landowners to determine what alternative practices may best fit on their land and validate them if requested. Landowners may install alternative practices with or without SWCD assistance and may request a validation of compliance from the SWCD.

SWCDs have authority to validate alternative practices (and combination of practices) based on provisions of the USDA-NRCS Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG). In some situations, a SWCD may request additional input from other field staff or technical experts to ensure they are sufficiently informed when working with landowners. BWSR’s role is to provide program information and support to ensure local staff are successful and consistent when working with landowners.

Local Process

To help ensure a consistent approach across the state, BWSR recommends that SWCDs:

  • Develop alternative practices based on FOTG:
    • The NRCS Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG) practices and design standards are identified on the BWSR website and standards are detailed on the NRCS website.
    • The BWSR Board has authority to approve practices and methodologies not currently found in the NRCS FOTG which may be used to attain compliance with the law. (See Minn. Stat. §103F.48, Subd. 3(b))
  •  Ensure comparability:
    • Water quality benefits provided by an alternative practice must be comparable to that which a buffer would provide.
      • In some instances, it is appropriate to run models such as RUSLE2 (a soil loss estimator), BWSR pollution reduction calculators, PTMApp, or other commonly accepted scientific methods.
      • In many instances, SWCD best professional judgment should prevail, such as when determining that areas of significant concentrated flow are being treated by an alternative practice; or how and where runoff flowing into the water body occurs and how treatment is provided.
  • Document:
    • Documenting alternative practices as proposed/as implemented with a diagram, aerial photos, topographic or soil survey maps, etc. is important so both the landowner and the SWCD have a record of sufficient detail to show how alternative practices will be used to achieve comparable water quality benefit.

General Implementation Considerations

  • Protect and provide bank stability and water quality protection along the entire frontage of the water body and where possible, treat unstable banks.
  • Note where field wind erosion susceptibility is an important resource concern and suggest wind erosion practices. See: https://infosys.ars.usda.gov/WindErosion/nrcs/wepsnrcs.html.
  • If a project will alter the course, current or cross section of a Public Water it is suggested that landowners and/or SWCD staff contact the DNR Area Hydrologist (pdf) before initiating the project.
  • SWCD staff may work with landowners to develop routine maintenance plans to ensure the viability of practices which have been implemented. This allows the local SWCD and the landowner to ensure practice success.
  • Alternative practices installed on public ditches per this document should be coordinated with the public drainage authority to ensure consistency with the acquisition and establishment of permanent strips of perennial vegetation in accordance with Chapter 103E.
  • Alternative practices installed per this document within shoreland zoning districts should be coordinated with county or municipal officials responsible for shoreland ordinance provisions.

Development of Common Alternative Practices

While the law doesn’t direct BWSR to prescribe alternative practices, many (including local governments, interest groups, legislators, and landowners) have asked for examples of common alternative practices scenarios to increase the efficiency and consistency of landowner assistance provided by SWCDs.

These common alternative practices were developed in response to and with suggestions from SWCD staff from around the state. These combinations are not intended to be the only options for implementation, or to address all scenarios. The common alternative practice examples include:

     1. Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program
     2. USDA-FOTG Practice Standards Filter Strip (393/391) - public waters w/50’ buffer standard
     3. Grassed Waterway/Cultivated Watercourses - public waters w/50’ buffer standard
     4A. Negative slopes or concentrated inflow - public ditches w/16.5’ buffer standard
     4B. Glacial Lake Plain Areas - public ditches w/16.5’ buffer standard
     5. Negative slopes or concentrated inflow - public waters w/50’ buffer standard
     6. Conservation Tillage/Cover Crops with Vegetated Filter Strip - public waters w/50’ buffer standard