Severe flooding occurred in parts of the Little Colorado and Gila River basins as a result of a storm that occurred December 17-20, 1978. The central highlands received 3 to 10 inches of precipitation that was augmented by snowmelt to altitudes of 10,000 feet. The storm was preceded by extremely large amounts of rainfall and runoff in November and was followed by other periods of high runoff in January and March 1979. In some areas flood peaks in November, January, or March were higher than the peak of December 1978.
At Winslow, the discharge of the Little Colorado River in December 1978 was the highest since at least 1952. The discharge of the Gila River above the San Francisco River was probably the highest since at least 1891, and in the Safford Valley, the peak was the highest since 1916. The Agua Fria River below Waddell Dam had the highest discharge since 1919.
The flood of December 1978 caused 12 deaths and caused damage that was probably in excess of $150 million in Arizona and west-central New Mexico. Damage was estimated to be $51.8 million in Maricopa County, Arizona. Floods caused extensive agricultural damage along the Gila River in Virden Valley in New Mexico and in Duncan, York, and Safford Valleys in Arizona. Duncan, Arizona, was flooded with as much as 7 feet of water.
The flood crest on the Gila River in December 1978 moved from Redrock, New Mexico, to Duncan, Arizona, in about 6 hours, which is more rapid than during other recent floods but is comparable to the travel-time recorded in 1941. Travel-time in the reach varies with discharge and is about 14 hours for discharges of 10,000 cubic feet per second and 5 hours for discharges of more than 40,000 cubic feet per second.
Water-conservation reservoirs on the Gila, Salt, Verde, and Agua Fria Rivers and a flood-control reservoir on the Gila River had a major influence on the magnitude of floods downstream from the reservoirs. All runoff from the Gila River basin upstream from Coolidge Dam, Arizona, during the floods of November 1978 to January 1979 was stored in San Carlos Reservoir, and major flooding was averted along the Gila River between Coolidge Dam and Salt River. Minor flooding occurred along the Gila River downstream from San Pedro River. Floods in central and western Maricopa Count, Arizona, were caused by the release of water from full reservoirs on the Salt, Verde, and Agua Fria Rivers, but peak discharges and duration of the floods were much less than would have occurred if the reservoirs had not been in place.
Flow continued in the Salt River through Phoenix until May 1979. Floodwater was stored in the flood-control reservoir above Painted Rock Dam on the Gila River in order to prevent major damage along the Gila and Colorado Rivers. Water was released from Painted Rock Dam until January 1980. The prolonged flows and reduction in ground-water pumping caused ground-water levels to rise appreciably in many areas.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Floods of November 1978 to March 1979 in Arizona and west-central New Mexico
Water Supply Paper
iv, 149 p. :ill., maps ;28 cm.; 2 plates in pocket