Geomorphologic studies are an excellent means of flood-hazard assessment on alluvial fans and piedmonts in the southwestern United States. Inactive, flood-free, alluvial fans display well developed soils, desert pavement, rock varnish, and tributary drainage networks. These areas are easily distinguished from flood-prone active alluvial fans on aerial photographs and in the field. The distribution of flood-prone areas associated with alluvial fans is strongly controlled by fanhead trenches dissecting the surface. Where fanhead trenches are permanent features cut in response to long-term conditions such as tectonic quiescence, flood-prone surfaces are situated down-slope from the mountain front and their positions are stable for thousands of years. Since the length and permanency of fanhead trenches can vary greatly between adjacent drainages, it is not appropriate to use regional generalizations to evaluate the distribution and stability of flood-hazard zones. Site-specific geomorphologic studies must be carried out if piedmont areas with a high risk of flooding are to be correctly identified and losses due to alluvial-fan flooding minimized. To meet the growing demand for trained professionals to complete geomorphologic maps of desert piedmonts, undergraduate and graduate geomorphology courses should adopt an instructional unit on alluvial-fan flood hazards that includes: 1) a review of geomorphologic characteristics that vary with surface age; 2) a basic mapping exercise; and 3) a discussion of the causes of fanhead trenching.
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Geomorphologic flood-hazard assessment of alluvial fans and piedmonts