SALT LAKE CITY — The rivers are raging, the rain keeps falling, but two words why we're in a lot better shape than we were in the infamous flood spring of 1983:
McInerney's been in the news more than Jimmer Fredette lately. He's the hydrologist — the water expert — at National Weather Service headquarters in Salt Lake City. Every time the media wants a comment about the water situation, they call him.
McInerney, Utah's first and only hydrologist, has been on the job since 1989, six years after the fateful summer of 1983 when things got so bad State Street was turned into a river. For a week or so, Salt Lake was Venice West, but without the gondoliers and the cool bistros.
The perfect storm, or storms, that created the floods of '83 — wet, cold spring, huge snowpack, late melting caused by sudden warming — is starting to replicate itself 28 years later. All that's needed is a hot spell.
But in sharp contrast to then, when many people were caught unawares, and now, the situation is under much better control. Sandbags are at the ready, debris is being cleared from culverts, tunnels have already been dredged, a sophisticated alert system is in place — and all because of a hands-on hydrologist monitoring where the water is, how much is likely on the way, and where it's liable to go in the future.
McInerney would be the last man to suggest all this added vigilance and preparation has anything to do with him personally — it's having someone at the controls that matters.
"There's a need for this kind of position," he says. "In 1983 they had to wing it. They used the Colorado Basin River Forecast Center to monitor what was going on, and they do a great job, but they cover a seven state area and can't give localized attention."
Since March, when he first got the inkling of the wet spring that was shaping up, McInerney has been giving localized attention. He's been meeting with city officials, public workers and other political officials up and down the state, spreading the word, presenting the possible scenarios, best case and worst case.
"We don't tell anyone what to do, we just give them the science," he says. "The key is not to cry wolf too much so people stop listening to you. But you don't want to be asleep at the wheel either."
McInerney came to Utah as a National Weather Service intern in 1989, fresh from getting his master's degree in hydrology at the University of Montana. At first, he recalls, they didn't know what to do with him in the office — one lone hydrologist in a roomful of meteorologists. They study the weather; he studies the water. But over time they came to realize they could coexist and each help the other.
His path to Utah was as convoluted as the one that brought him to hydrology. Growing up in Chicago, he knew nothing about water beyond drinking it. Then he went to St. Mary's, a college in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. There he found summer work as a guide portaging canoes on 10-day excursions in the wilderness along the U.S.-Canada border. The job had nothing to do with his major — he studied psychology — and neither did the ski patrol job he got after he hitch hiked to the Colorado Rockies once he got his degree.
He might have been a ski bum forever if a) his mom hadn't badgered him about getting a real job, and b) he hadn't gotten married.
He first tried law school, which he didn't love, and then tried hydrology, which he did.
"I enjoy water, and I enjoy being in the mountains," McInerney says. He and his wife, Lisa, herself a former ski instructor and now a third grade teacher, live in Park City.Comment on this story
That means that every day when Brian drives out of the mountains to his office in Salt Lake City he passes all that snow that's got to go somewhere.
Only unlike the rest of us, he's got a very good idea when and where.
"We're pretty sure we're going to flood, and we already have in a few places," he says. "It's all up to how hot it gets and how fast. But we're so much better prepared than 1983. I think we'll have some mess, but not the dramatic mess we had last time. The river running down State Street, I don't think so."
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.