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Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5131

Prepared in Cooperation with South Dakota Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, City of Rapid City, and West Dakota Water Development District

Flood-Frequency Analyses from Paleoflood Investigations for Spring, Rapid, Boxelder, and Elk Creeks, Black Hills, Western South Dakota

By Tessa M. Harden, Jim E. O’Connor, Daniel G. Driscoll, and John F. Stamm

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (14.8 MB)Abstract

Flood-frequency analyses for the Black Hills area are important because of severe flooding of June 9–10, 1972, that was caused by a large mesoscale convective system and caused at least 238 deaths. Many 1972 peak flows are high outliers (by factors of 10 or more) in observed records that date to the early 1900s. An efficient means of reducing uncertainties for flood recurrence is to augment gaged records by using paleohydrologic techniques to determine ages and magnitudes of prior large floods (paleofloods). This report summarizes results of paleoflood investigations for Spring Creek, Rapid Creek (two reaches), Boxelder Creek (two subreaches), and Elk Creek. Stratigraphic records and resulting long-term flood chronologies, locally extending more than 2,000 years, were combined with observed and adjusted peak-flow values (gaged records) and historical flood information to derive flood-frequency estimates for the six study reaches. Results indicate that (1) floods as large as and even substantially larger than 1972 have affected most of the study reaches, and (2) incorporation of the paleohydrologic information substantially reduced uncertainties in estimating flood recurrence.

Canyons within outcrops of Paleozoic rocks along the eastern flanks of the Black Hills provided excellent environments for (1) deposition and preservation of stratigraphic sequences of late-Holocene flood deposits, primarily in protected slack-water settings flanking the streams; and (2) hydraulic analyses for determination of associated flow magnitudes. The bedrock canyons ensure long-term stability of channel and valley geometry, thereby increasing confidence in hydraulic computations of ancient floods from modern channel geometry.

Stratigraphic records of flood sequences, in combination with deposit dating by radiocarbon, optically stimulated luminescence, and cesium-137, provided paleoflood chronologies for 29 individual study sites. Flow magnitudes were estimated from elevations of flood deposits in conjunction with hydraulic calculations based on modern channel and valley geometry. Reach-scale paleoflood chronologies were interpreted for each study reach, which generally entailed correlation of flood evidence among multiple sites, chiefly based on relative position within stratigraphic sequences, unique textural characteristics, or results of age dating and flow estimation.

The FLDFRQ3 and PeakfqSA analytical models (assuming log-Pearson Type III frequency distributions) were used for flood-frequency analyses for as many as four scenarios: (1) analysis of gaged records only; (2) gaged records with historical information; (3) all available data including gaged records, historical flows, paleofloods, and perception thresholds; and (4) the same as the third scenario, but “top fitting” the distribution using only the largest 50 percent of gaged peak flows. The PeakfqSA model is most consistent with procedures adopted by most Federal agencies for flood-frequency analysis and thus was (1) used for comparisons among results for study reaches, and (2) considered by the authors as most appropriate for general applications of estimating low-probability flood recurrence.

The detailed paleoflood investigations indicated that in the last 2,000 years all study reaches have had multiple large floods substantially larger than in gaged records. For Spring Creek, stratigraphic records preserved a chronology of at least five paleofloods in approximately (~) 1,000 years approaching or exceeding the 1972 flow of 21,800 cubic feet per second (ft3/s). The largest was ~700 years ago with a flow range of 29,300–58,600 ft3/s, which reflects the uncertainty regarding flood-magnitude estimates that was incorporated in the flood-frequency analyses.

In the lower reach of Rapid Creek (downstream from Pactola Dam), two paleofloods in ~1,000 years exceeded the 1972 flow of 31,200 ft3/s. Those occurred ~440 and 1,000 years ago, with flows of 128,000–256,000 and 64,000–128,000 ft3/s, respectively. Five smaller paleofloods of 9,500–19,000 ft3/s occurred between ~200 and 400 years ago. In the upper reach of Rapid Creek (above Pactola Reservoir), the largest recorded floods are substantially smaller than for lower Rapid Creek and all other study reaches. Paleofloods of ~12,900 and 12,000 ft3/s occurred ~1,000 and 1,500 years ago. One additional paleoflood (~800 years ago) was similar in magnitude to the largest gaged flow of 2,460 ft3/s

Boxelder Creek was treated as having two subreaches because of two tributaries that affect peak flows. During the last ~1,000 years, paleofloods of ~39,000–78,000 ft3/s and 40,000–80,000 ft3/s in the upstream subreach have exceeded the 1972 peak flow of 30,800 ft3/s. One other paleoflood was similar to the second largest gaged flow (16,400 ft3/s in 1907). For the downstream subreach, paleofloods of 61,300–123,000 ft3/s and 52,500–105,000 ft3/s in the last ~1,000 years have substantially exceeded the 1972 flood (50,500 ft3/s). Four additional paleofloods had flows between 14,200 and 33,800 ft3/s.

The 1972 flow on Elk Creek (10,400 ft3/s) has been substantially exceeded at least five times in the last 1,900 years. The largest paleoflood (41,500–124,000 ft3/s) was ~900 years ago. Three other paleofloods between 37,500 and 120,000 ft3/s occurred between 1,100 and 1,800 years ago. A fifth paleoflood of 25,500–76,500 ft3/s was ~750 years ago.

Considering analyses for all available data (PeakfqSA model) for all six study reaches, the 95-percent confidence intervals about the low-probability quantile estimates (100-, 200-, and 500-year recurrence intervals) were reduced by at least 78 percent relative to those for the gaged records only. In some cases, 95-percent uncertainty intervals were reduced by 99 percent or more. For all study reaches except the two Boxelder Creek subreaches, quantile estimates for these long-term analyses were larger than for the short-term analyses.

The 1972 flow for the Spring Creek study reach (21,800 ft3/s) corresponds with a recurrence interval of ~400 years. Recurrence intervals are ~500 years for the 1972 flood magnitudes along the lower Rapid Creek reach and the upstream subreach of Boxelder Creek. For the downstream subreach of Boxelder Creek, the large 1972 flood magnitude (50,500 ft3/s) exceeds the 500-year quantile estimate by about 35 percent. The recurrence interval of ~100 years for 1972 flooding along the Elk Creek study reach is small relative to other study reaches along the eastern margin of the Black Hills.

All of the paleofloods plot within the bounds of a national envelope curve, indicating that the national curve represents exceedingly rare floods for the Black Hills area. Elk Creek, lower Rapid Creek, and the downstream subreach of Boxelder Creek all have paleofloods that plot above a regional envelope curve; in the case of Elk Creek, by a factor of nearly two. The Black Hills paleofloods represent some of the largest known floods, relative to drainage area, for the United States. Many of the other largest known United States floods are in areas with physiographic and climatologic conditions broadly similar to the Black Hills—semiarid and rugged landscapes that intercept and focus heavy precipitation from convective storm systems.

The 1972 precipitation and runoff patterns, previous analyses of peak-flow records, and the paleoflood investigations of this study support a hypothesis of distinct differences in flood generation within the central Black Hills study area. The eastern Black Hills are susceptible to intense orographic lifting associated with convective storm systems and also have high relief, thin soils, and narrow and steep canyons—factors favoring generation of exceptionally heavy rain-producing thunderstorms and promoting runoff and rapid concentration of flow into stream channels. In contrast, storm potential is smaller in and near the Limestone Plateau area, and storm runoff is further reduced by substantial infiltration into the limestone, gentle topography, and extensive floodplain storage.

Results of the paleoflood investigations are directly applicable only to the specific study reaches and in the case of Rapid Creek, only to pre-regulation conditions. Thus, approaches for broader applications were developed from inferences of overall flood-generation processes, and appropriate domains for application of results were described. Example applications were provided by estimating flood quantiles for selected streamgages, which also allowed direct comparison with results of at-site flood-frequency analyses from a previous study.

Several broad issues and uncertainties were examined, including potential biases associated with stratigraphic records that inherently are not always complete, uncertainties regarding statistical approaches, and the unknown applicability of paleoflood records to future watershed conditions. The results of the paleoflood investigations, however, provide much better physically based information on low-probability floods than has been available previously, substantially improving estimates of the magnitude and frequency of large floods in these basins and reducing associated uncertainty.

Revised January 18, 2012

First posted September 23, 2011

For additional information contact:
Director, USGS South Dakota Water Science Center
1608 Mt. View Rd.
Rapid City, SD 57702
(605) 394-3200

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Suggested citation:

Harden, T.M., O’Connor, J.E., Driscoll, D.G., and Stamm, J.F., 2011, Flood-frequency analyses from paleoflood investigations for Spring, Rapid, Boxelder, and Elk Creeks, Black Hills, western South Dakota: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5131, 136 p.




Study Area and Background Information

Methods of Investigation

Flood-Frequency Analyses from Paleoflood Investigations

Central Black Hills Flood Frequency: Synopsis, Implications, and Application


References Cited

Supplement 1. Age-Dating Tables

Supplement 2. Modern Peak-Flow Chronologies

Supplement 3. Schematic Diagrams

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