Floods of November-December 1950 in the Central Valley basin, California

Water Supply Paper 1137-F




The flood of November-December 1950 in the Central Valley basin was the greatest in most parts of the basin since the turn of the century and probably was exceeded in the lower San Joaquin River basin only by the historic flood of 1862. In respect to monetary loss, the 1950 flood was the most disastrous in the history of the basin. Loss of life was remarkably small when one considers the extensive damage and destruction to homes and other property, which is estimated at 33 million dollars. Outstanding features of the flood were its unprecedented occurrence so early in the winter flood season, its magnitude in respect to both peak and volume in most major tributaries, and the occurrence of a succession of near-peak flows with a period of three weeks. The flood was caused by a series of storms during the period November 16 to December 8, which brought exceptionally warm, moisture-laden air inland against the Sierra Nevada range and caused intense rainfall, instead of snowfall, at unusually high altitudes. Basin-wide totals of rainfall during the period ranged from 30 inches over the Yuba and American River basins to 13 inches over the upper Sacramento and Feather River basins. Based on continuous records of discharge on major tributaries for periods ranging from 22 to 55 years and averaging about 43 years, the 1950 flood peaks were the greatest of record on the American, Cosumnes, Mokelumne, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Chowchilla, Fresno, lower San Joaquin, Kings, Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers. Second highest peak of record occurred during the flood of March 1928 on the Yuba, American and Mokelumne Rivers; the flood of Marcn 1940 on Cosumnes River; the flood of January 1911 on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers; the flood of December 1937 on the Merced, Kings, and Kaweah Rivers; the flood of March 1938 on the Chowchilla, Fresno, and lower San Joaquin Rivers; and the flood of March 1943 on the Tule and Kern Rivers. Peak discharges for 1950 did not exceed previous maxima on Bear, Yuba, Feather, and upper Sacramento Rivers, nor on west side tributaries of lower Sacramento River, Calaveras River, and upper San Joaquin River (above Friant Reservoir). Notable high rates of discharge were 354 cfs per square mile from 39.5 square miles in North Fork of Middle Fork Tule River, 225 cfs per square mile from 198 square miles in Rubicon River, 115 cfs per square mile from 999 square miles in North Fork of American River and 93.7 cfs per square mile from 1,921 square miles in American River at Fair Oaks. This report presents a general description of the 1950 flood, details and estimates of the damage incurred, records of stage and discharge for the period of the flood at 171 stream-gaging stations, records of storage in 14 reservoirs, a summary of peak discharges with comparative data for previous floods at 252 measurement points, and tables showing crest stages along the main stem and major tributary channels of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. The report also includes a discussion of meteorologic and hydrologic conditions associated with the flood, examples of the flood regulation afforded by storage reservoirs, a brief study of runoff characteristics, and a summary and comparison with previous floods in the Central Valley basin.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Floods of November-December 1950 in the Central Valley basin, California
Series title:
Water Supply Paper
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. G.P.O.,
p. 505-789 :ill., maps ;24 cm.