KC Water’s dedicated ‘Rain Man’ keeps a sharp eye out for potential flooding

By Brooke Givens, Water services

Few of us want rain while on vacation. But for James Walton, as long as it’s dry in Kansas City, rain doesn’t ruin his day no matter where he is. “The only time I get to sit back and enjoy the rain is when it’s raining somewhere else.”

James Walton
Walton is a Registered Engineer for KC Water’s Stormwater Utility. Much of his work focuses on flood warning systems. That means when a rain event is forecast for Kansas City, Walton keeps the Emergency Manager and other city department leaders aware of potential threats and risks.

Walton monitors flood gauges during storms and can predict what will likely happen at specific locations. For instance, a flood gauge reading in Roeland Park tells him what is headed toward Ward Parkway. These readings are the driver for whether a road is closed or an area is evacuated due to stream flood response to rainfall.

There are nearly 200 flood gauges across the metro that can issue as many as 550 warnings such as rain intensity and water levels, also called “stages” in local streams and rivers.

Heavy rains in late summer of 2017 kept Walton busy. “I’ve been doing this since 2000 and this is certainly the most packed period of rain we’ve had in such a short amount of time.”

Walton grew up in Edwardsville, Kan., where he spent hours with his father outside fishing and hunting. But it was his health that led him to a career in public service. “When I was 15 I became a type 1 diabetic and that changed how I looked at things. I kind of looked into things from a perspective of what can I do for the public. What can I do to essentially help others given I’m only here thanks to science, technology and others.”

When Walton isn’t watching the radar, he’s digging through the volumes of data to better understand watershed studies and modeling, GIS (Geographic Information System), and stormwater plan reviews.

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“We just don’t have enough data yet,” Walton said. “One of our biggest challenges is the unknown. The federal government can identify flooding risks down to the square mile. The City knows about flooding down to on average 50 acres, but I want to know down to the half-acre. What happens to your home and your neighbor’s home when it rains? Twin Creeks, in the Northland, will be our first effort to reach that 0.5 acre drainage area resolution. Where we had 60 miles of known stream flooding, we’ll now have 180 miles with better data and modeling.”

When it looks like Kansas City is about to get significant rain, Walton recommends to Emergency Management where to pre-stage street barricades. Workers from KC Water, Parks and Recreation, and Public Works set them up at 100 sites that commonly flood. But, that’s nowhere near a comprehensive list. Walton says there are 10,000 places that can flood and he says drivers can’t be reminded enough: “Don’t drive into standing water. Turn around. The risk to your safety is too high. Your family and friends want to see you alive, not buried under flood debris in your car. 50% of flood deaths happen in vehicles.”

KC Water continues to work to reduce the threat of flash flooding.

Along Brush Creek and in other parts of the city you’ll notice big, blue, steel posts. Inside each of those is a flood gauge. There were just 18 in Kansas City when Walton joined KC Water in 2000. Now, there are 72. Each of these gauges provides valuable data in tracking stormwater.

In 2016, after years of work, KC Water celebrated the completion of the Blue River Channel Project. It minimizes the flood risk to homes and businesses along the Blue River, from 63rd Street all the way to the Missouri River.

Kansas City will never be immune to flash flooding. More development usually means more concrete, which creates storm runoff. But, KC Water will continue making smart investments to lessen the effect of stormwater. And, Walton will be following the path of stormwater and alerting those who might be impacted.

“Mother Nature is creative and rain can fall however and wherever it likes,” Walton said.