The peak discharge record at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gaging station at Skagit River near Concrete, Washington, is a key record that has come under intense scrutiny by the scientific and lay person communities in the last 4 years. A peak discharge of 240,000 cubic feet per second for the flood on December 13, 1921, was determined in 1923 by USGS hydrologist James Stewart by means of a slope-area measurement. USGS then determined the peak discharges of three other large floods on the Skagit River (1897, 1909, and 1917) by extending the stage-discharge rating through the 1921 flood measurement. The 1921 estimate of peak discharge was recalculated by Flynn and Benson of the USGS after a channel roughness verification was completed based on the 1949 flood on the Skagit River. The 1949 recalculation indicated that the peak discharge probably was 6.2 percent lower than Stewart's original estimate but the USGS did not officially change the peak discharge from Stewart's estimate because it was not more than a 10-percent change (which is the USGS guideline for revising peak flows) and the estimate already had error bands of 15 percent. All these flood peaks are now being used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine the 100-year flood discharge for the Skagit River Flood Study so any method to confirm or improve the 1921 peak discharge estimate is warranted.
During the last 4 years, two floods have occurred on the Skagit River (2003, 2006) that has enabled the USGS to collect additional data, do further analysis, and yet again re-evaluate the 1921 peak discharge estimate. Since 1949, an island/bar in the study reach has reforested itself. This has complicated the flow hydraulics and made the most recent recalculation of the 1921 flood based on channel roughness verification that used 2003 and 2006 flood data less reliable. However, this recent recalculation did indicate that the original peak-discharge calculation by Stewart may be high, and it added to a body of evidence that indicates a revision in the 1921 peak discharge estimate is appropriate.
The USGS has determined that a lower peak-discharge estimate (5.0 percent lower) similar to the 1949 estimates is most appropriate based on (1) a recalculation of the 1921 flood using a channel roughness verification from the 1949 flood data, (2) a recalculation of the 1921 flood using a channel roughness verification from 2003 and 2006 flood data, and (3) straight-line extension of the stage-discharge relation at the gage based on current-meter discharge measurements. Given the significance of the 1921 flood peak, revising the estimate is appropriate even though it is less than the 10-percent guideline established by the USGS for revision. Revising the peak is warranted because all work subsequent to 1921 point to the 1921 peak being lower than originally published.