Paleoflood evidence for a natural upper bound to flood magnitudes in the Colorado River Basin

Yehouda Enzel*, Lisa L. Ely, P. Kyle House, Victor R. Baker, Robert H. Webb

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

108 Scopus citations


The existence of an upper limit to the magnitude of floods in a region is a long‐standing and controversial hypothesis in flood hydrology. Regional envelope curves encompassing maximum flood magnitudes stabilize with progressive increases in the areal coverage and period of observation (Wolman and Costa, 1984). However, the short lengths of conventional gaging records limit substantial advances in testing whether this stabilization is evidence of an upper limit. In the Colorado River basin there are 32,120 station years of gage data, but the average period at a gaging station is only 20 years, with most stations having less than 70 years of observation. Paleoflood magnitudes derived from sediments of large prehistoric floods from 25 sites on rivers in Arizona and Utah provide additional data to extend the records of the largest floods. The paleoflood data identify the maximum flood discharges that have occurred on individual rivers over the last several hundred to several thousand years. Even with this increase in the observational period, the largest paleoflood discharges do not exceed the upper bound of maximum peak discharges delineated by the envelope curve derived from the available gaged and historical records. This result accords with the hypothesis of an upper physical limit for flood magnitudes and suggests that, for the Colorado River basin, the upper limit can be approximated by existing systematic and historical data for large floods. Similar relationships also hold when paleofloods and gaged records are presented for the subregion of southern Arizona.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)2287-2297
Number of pages11
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1993


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