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Flood characteristics of urban watersheds in the United States

January 1, 1983

A nationwide study of flood magnitude and frequency in urban areas was made for the purpose of reviewing available literature, compiling an urban flood data base, and developing methods of estimating urban floodflow characteristics in ungaged areas. The literature review contains synopses of 128 recent publications related to urban floodflow. A data base of 269 gaged basins in 56 cities and 31 States, including Hawaii, contains a wide variety of topographic and climatic characteristics, land-use variables, indices of urbanization, and flood-frequency estimates.

Three sets of regression equations were developed to estimate flood discharges for ungaged sites for recurrence intervals of 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 years. Two sets of regression equations are based on seven independent parameters and the third is based on three independent parameters. The only difference in the two sets of seven-parameter equations is the use of basin lag time in one and lake and reservoir storage in the other. Of primary importance in these equations is an independent estimate of the equivalent rural discharge for the ungaged basin. The equations adjust the equivalent rural discharge to an urban condition. The primary adjustment factor, or index of urbanization, is the basin development factor, a measure of the extent of development of the drainage system in the basin. This measure includes evaluations of storm drains (sewers), channel improvements, and curb-and-gutter streets.

The basin development factor is statistically very significant and offers a simple and effective way of accounting for drainage development and runoff response in urban areas. Percentage of impervious area is also included in the seven-parameter equations as an additional measure of urbanization and apparently accounts for increased runoff volumes. This factor is not highly significant for large floods, which supports the generally held concept that imperviousness is not a dominant factor when soils become more saturated during large storms. Other parameters in the seven-parameter equations include drainage area size, channel slope, rainfall intensity, lake and reservoir storage, and basin lag time. These factors are all statistically significant and provide logical indices of basin conditions. The three-parameter equations include only the three most significant parameters: rural discharge, basin-development factor, and drainage area size.

All three sets of regression equations provide unbiased estimates of urban flood frequency. The seven-parameter regression equations without basin lag time have average standard errors of regression varying from ? 37 percent for the 5-year flood to ? 44 percent for the 100-year flood and ? 49 percent for the 500-year flood. The other two sets of regression equations have similar accuracy. Several tests for bias, sensitivity, and hydrologic consistency are included which support the conclusion that the equations are useful throughout the United States. All estimating equations were developed from data collected on drainage basins where temporary in-channel storage, due to highway embankments, was not significant. Consequently, estimates made with these equations do not account for the reducing effect of this temporary detention storage.

Publication Year 1983
Title Flood characteristics of urban watersheds in the United States
DOI 10.3133/wsp2207
Authors Vernon B. Sauer, W.O. Thomas, V.A. Stricker, K. V. Wilson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Water Supply Paper
Series Number 2207
Index ID wsp2207
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse