County Ditch No. 5 issues continue to perplex McGregor

County Engineer John Welle (right) provided some historical context to McGregor City Council members as they considered ways to address flooding in the city. 

Aitkin County Engineer John Welle attended the Feb. 1 meeting of the McGregor City Council to give some historical perspective on the drainage issues causing problems for the city.

Welle stated that the public drainage ditch was an issue as far back as 2004.  The blockage is currently backing up water in McGregor.

“The water elevation at Hwy 65 is 4 feet higher than at Hwy. 210,” Welle explained. “To be holding back 4 feet of water in a little over a mile, is an issue.”

“It doesn’t take a lot of engineering to figure out that the ditch is blocked,” he added.

Welle said that the county had previously set out on the path of trying to fix the problem. After a number of discussions with regulatory agencies that have jurisdiction, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the county put together an environmental assessment worksheet for the proposed project.

The drainage involves  Rice Lake, which is classified as a protected body of water, which is why DNR became involved.

Ultimately the county  investigated a variety of options, including just draining the water into the road ditch. MnDOT would not agree to that strategy. Realigning the ditch south of the homes along 210 was one option that was evaluated, but Minnesota Pollution Control Agency had a problem with that approach.

Even though the DNR, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local wetland agencies were on board, MPCA denied the 401 certification, sending a letter  on June 6, 2005 denying approval of the project, Welle recalled.

The concerns that arose were related to the effect the ditching might have on the impaired waters of Big Sandy Lake, and concerns about the McGregor sewer system. The county legal council told Welle at that time that the county would not be able to prevail.

“Basically nothing has changed in all the intervening years,” Welle said.

In response to a question from McGregor Mayor Dake Olson about what would be the appropriate next step for the city to take regarding the drainage issue, Welle said, “This is a project that needs a local champion, combined with a political solution.”


Because of added challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become apparent that McGregor can no longer support a volunteer ambulance service, said Olson. McGregor is considering a taxation model similar to the way the city finances its fire department.

There are 21 townships and 627 square miles in the ambulance district, so there are quite number of properties and the burden on each property owner would be small. Olson estimated the city would need $300,000 per year to keep the ambulance running. Carlton has  a voluntary taxing district that could be looked at as a model.

Medicare currently pays a maximum of $480 per run plus mileage; about half what the ambulance needs to bill for service. The aging population means the number of runs is increasing, and the city can no longer sustain the model under which it has been operating.

The second Tuesday in March was suggested as an  appropriate time to have a vote on the subject, when the taxing district meetings are held. The taxing district would have to form a board to make that change, with representation from the townships. Olson said payroll for an ambulance crew is high because of COVID-19. The city will need to consider changing the way it pays, maybe to an hourly rate. “There are no volunteers,” said Olson. “So we expect  to have to pay people to be on call.”

The board approved hiring an ambulance manager.  North Memorial quoted the city a price for two days a month plus two days a week in the office for $86,000/year. After some discussion, the board agreed that the compensation would be in the $50,000 - $65,000 range; one council member opposed.


There is interest in building another, much larger hangar at the McGregor airport.

Fuel prices are expected to remain the same for some time. An airport meeting will be held Feb. 24. Feb.  25 is the airport ordinance public hearing — the airport commission has to work on having the appropriate zoning in place. The airport meetings could be of interest to the public. Contact airport commissioner Merritt at 218-341-8821 for more information.

The next McGregor City Council meeting will be at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 2 at the fire hall.

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