This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
PROVO - As raging water spills over banks in Utah's rivers and streams this spring, Jim Nelson is very busy.
Not with bagging sand or digging ditches. But on his computer.
The Brigham Young University civil engineering professor is immersed in the sophisticated software he and a team of colleagues developed to map flood plains and predict water runoff.
With his Watershed Modeling System (WMS), Nelson knew where the problem spots were going to be this spring - even before minor flooding hit the state. In fact, he believes his technology may even reshape the way flood insurance is calculated.
"It's an art as much as it is a science," he says about his 3-D mapping techniques. "Now [with all the water] is when we find out if what we've done is right. All of a sudden people care."
One of Nelson's models - there are more than a half dozen - uses historical data and topographical maps to determine what kinds of flows residents can expect from a river behind their house in case of record rains or snowpacks.
That's exactly what Nelson did for a Springville neighbor whose deck was threatened by high runoff in Hobble Creek.
"We engineers are like weathermen," Nelson says. "Nobody should expect that what the weatherman says is the gospel truth. To a certain degree, in engineering, it's the same thing."
Nelson's neighbor, though, is by no means a guinea pig for the water models.
The software is already used by more than 26 state transportation departments throughout the nation and at hundreds of sites around the world.
In April, Nelson and research associate Chris Smemoe spent a week in Egypt training 17 Iraqi engineers to put the models to use in re-creating waterways and planning for potential flooding.
Closer to home, Utah Department of Transportation crews are using Nelson's software to build new bridges in St. George, where floods washed out old ones earlier this year. Crews in Southern California are doing the same in the wake of January mudslides.
With the BYU engineers' ability to predict flood plains at different intervals, the models also could change the way flood insurance rates are determined.
Currently, people who live within a 100-year flood plain pay flood insurance, while those who live outside the lines don't, leaving some residents with high premiums that will never be justified and others without the coverage they need.
Nelson and Smemoe say people should pay flood insurance according to where they are located: the highest rates for those in a 5-year flood plain, moderate rates for those in a 50-year plain, and the lowest for those in the 100-year plain.
"It's kind of like life insurance," Smemoe says.
"You're going to pay a different rate if you're 70 years old than if you're 20 years old."
Nelson, however, admits his idea doesn't yet have much traction with insurers against floods, but believes it eventually will.
In the meantime, developers on the WMS team will continue to advance the program and improve its accuracy and capability.
"There are probably only two or three software packages in the world that do what our software does," Smemoe says. "It's something that we're always adding new capabilities to."
BYU licenses the software, then distributes it through South Jordan-based Environmental Modeling Systems, Inc. The software costs $2,000 per package. Royalties from the sales come back to BYU's engineering department and are used for future studies.