An Evaluation of Selected Extraordinary Floods in the United States Reported by the U.S. Geological Survey and Implications for Future Advancement of Flood Science

Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5164




Thirty flood peak discharges determine the envelope curve of maximum floods documented in the United States by the U.S. Geological Survey. These floods occurred from 1927 to 1978 and are extraordinary not just in their magnitude, but in their hydraulic and geomorphic characteristics. The reliability of the computed discharge of these extraordinary floods was reviewed and evaluated using current (2007) best practices. Of the 30 flood peak discharges investigated, only 7 were measured at daily streamflow-gaging stations that existed when the flood occurred, and 23 were measured at miscellaneous (ungaged) sites. Methods used to measure these 30 extraordinary flood peak discharges consisted of 21 slope-area measurements, 2 direct current-meter measurements, 1 culvert measurement, 1 rating-curve extension, and 1 interpolation and rating-curve extension. The remaining four peak discharges were measured using combinations of culvert, slope-area, flow-over-road, and contracted-opening measurements. The method of peak discharge determination for one flood is unknown. Changes to peak discharge or rating are recommended for 20 of the 30 flood peak discharges that were evaluated. Nine floods retained published peak discharges, but their ratings were downgraded. For two floods, both peak discharge and rating were corrected and revised. Peak discharges for five floods that are subject to significant uncertainty due to complex field and hydraulic conditions, were re-rated as estimates. This study resulted in 5 of the 30 peak discharges having revised values greater than about 10 percent different from the original published values. Peak discharges were smaller for three floods (North Fork Hubbard Creek, Texas; El Rancho Arroyo, New Mexico; South Fork Wailua River, Hawaii), and two peak discharges were revised upward (Lahontan Reservoir tributary, Nevada; Bronco Creek, Arizona). Two peak discharges were indeterminate because they were concluded to have been debris flows with peak discharges that were estimated by an inappropriate method (slope-area) (Big Creek near Waynesville, North Carolina; Day Creek near Etiwanda, California). Original field notes and records could not be found for three of the floods, however, some data (copies of original materials, records of reviews) were available for two of these floods. A rating was assigned to each of seven peak discharges that had no rating. Errors identified in the reviews include misidentified flow processes, incorrect drainage areas for very small basins, incorrect latitude and longitude, improper field methods, arithmetic mistakes in hand calculations, omission of measured high flows when developing rating curves, and typographical errors. Common problems include use of two-section slope-area measurements, poor site selection, uncertainties in Manning's n-values, inadequate review, lost data files, and insufficient and inadequately described high-water marks. These floods also highlight the extreme difficulty in making indirect discharge measurements following extraordinary floods. Significantly, none of the indirect measurements are rated better than fair, which indicates the need to improve methodology to estimate peak discharge. Highly unsteady flow and resulting transient hydraulic phenomena, two-dimensional flow patterns, debris flows at streamflow-gaging stations, and the possibility of disconnected flow surfaces are examples of unresolved problems not well handled by current indirect discharge methodology. On the basis of a comprehensive review of 50,000 annual peak discharges and miscellaneous floods in California, problems with individual flood peak discharges would be expected to require a revision of discharge or rating curves at a rate no greater than about 0.10 percent of all floods. Many extraordinary floods create complex flow patterns and processes that cannot be adequately documented with quasi-steady, uniform one-dimensional analyses. These floods are most accura

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USGS Numbered Series
An Evaluation of Selected Extraordinary Floods in the United States Reported by the U.S. Geological Survey and Implications for Future Advancement of Flood Science
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
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Geological Survey (U.S.)
Contributing office(s):
U.S. Geological Survey
Total: 242 p.; Report: 62 p. (vi, 53 p.); Appendix A: 180 p. (pages 54 to 232), also available as individual PDFs
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