Common Alternative Practices

The buffer law provides flexibility for alternative practices that may be better suited for some lands and landowners. Landowners also have the option to comply with the law by enrolling in the Agriculture Water Quality Certification Program. This program supports landowners by undertaking a comprehensive review of their entire operation to minimize water quality impacts.

What Statute Says

“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 or 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. Included in these practices are retention ponds and alternative measures that prevent overland flow to the water resource.” 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 guidance 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:

1. Develop alternative practices based on the 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))

2. 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.

3. 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: 
  • 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 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 guidance 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 guidance within shoreland zoning districts should be coordinated with county or municipal officials responsible for shoreland ordinance provisions.

Development of Common Alternative Practices

This “6 Pack” of 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
     4ANegative 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

Visit the Alternative Practices page for more information.


Laura DeBeer
Buffer and Soil Loss Specialist
Ethan Dahl
Buffer and Soil Loss Specialist