Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
New flood forecaster goes with flow
Water's ways have fascinated Mutulu since Kenya boyhood
For Phillip Mutulu, it's always been about the water.
Mutulu, 51, has been fascinated by both from his days as a boy growing up in Machakos, Kenya, a town about 60 kilometres southeast of Nairobi. Now, he cautiously watches the waters rise in southern Manitoba.
Mutulu is Manitoba's new flood forecaster, taking over from the legendary Alf Warkentin, who retired last year after 40 years on the job.
The father of three (his wife and children live in Calgary, but are moving here soon) spends most of his time at his office on Saulteux Crescent, just west of Richardson International Airport. He and other staff are busily studying numbers from a variety of sources, including a satellite, to get the best possible fix on how this spring's flood will unfold. The next flood briefing is March 23.
Despite his work schedule and 12- to 14-hour days, Mutulu said he still finds time to attend church on Sunday. That's where he sings and plays guitar for his friends and fellow worshippers. That could change as the flood fight heats up and Mutulu and Water Stewardship staff end up working around the clock.
"I'm mainly into country music and black gospel," Mutulu said with a grin. "I started with the church when I was young. I just love music. I play the guitar and the keyboards. People tell me I should start making CDs, but making music takes a lot of dedication and because of my profession, the time is just not there."
Currently, it looks like Manitoba will get a flood on par with the 2009 overflow, the fourth-highest since the worst recorded spring flood in 1826.
But this year there's a new wrinkle: Flooding is expected to be as bad on the Assiniboine River as on the Red River. What happens if both crest at the same time? In Winnipeg?
The reason both rivers are in play this flood season is because so much rain fell last year in the watershed.
"One of the challenges for us is the possibility of coincidental peaks," Mutulu said in an interview. "Our forecast does include that. It does take the worst-case scenario. It has not been a problem before, but it is a problem we have to deal with now."
Mutulu says he was originally trained as a meteorologist in Africa, where his parents still live on their vegetable farm. His 10 brothers and sisters (he's the oldest) also live in Kenya.
For the first five years of his career, he worked as meteorological forecaster in Nairobi.
"After that, I decided I needed a change. I was interested in studying water resources, hydrology and the movement of water through rivers."
That interest first took him to a university teaching position, but soon he became a student again.
"I decided I needed more training in hydrology, so I went to study water resources engineering in Belgium.
"In the course of those studies, I developed forecasting tools... One of them I developed for Kenya was for river flow forecasting."
He obtained a masters degree in hydrology, but teaching wasn't on the horizon; learning more about how water moves was.
Mutulu said he got a scholarship to study at the University of Calgary and immigrated to Canada in 1997.
"I got into a position as a research assistant, but at the same time, I was studying for my doctorate, my PhD in civil engineering, but specialization in water resources."
His studies focused on flood prediction and climate change, two areas Manitobans have become more familiar with in the past 20 years. His work continued at the U of C after he got his doctorate, developing mathematical models for river flow forecasting and geographic information systems.
His work next took him to a private Alberta engineering consulting company, where he applied his skills to how water should be stored. It was a good job, but he wanted to be a forecaster.
"Then all of a sudden a position showed up in the paper. They wanted a forecaster in Winnipeg. I applied for the position. I wasn't sure I was going to get it, but after the interview, I think they liked me."
That was in 2007, and for a while Mutulu worked under Warkentin. This is Mutulu's first flood on his own, although he and others still consult Warkentin.
"His type of experience you don't get from academic training," Mutulu said.
Mutulu accepts the long hours and stress of his job.
"It's not just a career for me, it's a calling that in a small way I'm helping the community understand what is happening. That gives me a kind of fulfilment that I'm serving the public and helping in a way to prevent a disaster."
It all comes our way
WHAT'S unique about spring flooding in Manitoba is that the watershed includes Saskatchewan, Ontario and the northern U.S. states. Then there's the slope of the Red River Valley, and how flooding is sometimes caused by unpredictable ice jams.
To get a handle on all that, provincial flood forecaster Phillip Mutulu and provincial Water Stewardship staff spend a lot of time gathering and crunching numbers.
Those numbers are supplied by Environment Canada weather stations and measuring gauges in the rivers, plus advice from experts at the Canadian Wheat Board, Manitoba Hydro and University of Manitoba.
"We do a lot of quality control," Mutulu said. "We have a very hard look at the information just to make sure it has as little errors as possible." That includes sending people throughout the province to measure soil moisture and using a satellite to measure the depth of the snowpack. Aircraft are also up measuring the snowpack on both sides of the border.
"Our forecasting cannot be better than what we put into it," Mutulu said.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2011 A5