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Survey of Death Valley Flood

August 15, 2004

Extremely heavy rainfall on the evening of August 15, 2004 produced extensive flooding in Death Valley National Park. According to park officials rainfall began along the eastern portions of the park (over the Black and Funeral Mountains) between 7:30-7:45 PM PDT Flooding started to occur between 7:55-8:00 PM PDT with intense flooding beginning at around 8:30 PDT. Park Ranger Charlie Callagan stated that this was the heaviest rainfall he had seen in his entire life and his rough estimates of rainfall were in the 1-2 inch range. This flood is being compared to the floods from 1985, 1941 and 1939.

The area receiving the most flooding and damage occurred along SR190 which runs along the Furnace Creek Wash. One arm of the wash runs along SR190 from the pass (at an elevation of 3040 feet) between the Mountains and Greenwater Range. Runoff was evident from numerous channels along the west side of the Funeral Mountains. Significant runoff and flooding was evident just south of the pass along SR190 with the first signs of water over the roadway near mile marker 126. Road erosion and damage was sporadic down to the merger with the main arm of the Furnace Creek wash.


However, one vehicle was pushed off the road and flipped just north of the merger of the two arms of the Furnace Creek Wash. The second, main arm extends along Dante's View Rd., which later becomes Furnace Creek Wash Rd. in the Green Water Valley between the Greenwater Range and Black Mountains. Mel Essington from the National Park Service observed evidence of flooding and significant road erosion on Dante's View Rd. Heavy runoff was evident along many channels along the east side of the Black Mountains (in excess of ten channels as observed by Mel Essington) and to a lesser extent from runoff from channels along the west side of the Greenwater Range.

Both arms of the Furnace Creek Wash merge approximately 10 miles from the Death Valley bottom at SR190.


The flooding was then significantly enhanced at the merger of both arms with flow crossing back and forth along the roadway initially, then running along both sides of the road causing substantial erosion, and additionally washing out entire sections of the roadway.


Additional runoff was provided from multiple channels along the west side of the Funeral Mountains. One location where several power lines were knocked over was near/just south of the merger of the washes.


The section between the entrance of 20 Mule Team Canyon Rd. and Zabriskie Point is where the two fatalities had occurred.


Gower Gulch, just to the north of Zabriskie Point is where a diversion for runoff was created after the 1939 and 1941 floods. Runoff generally follows the diversion westward through Gower Gulch but the excessively strong flow jumped over the diversion to continue down along and/or over SR190. Significant flooding occurred in the vicinity of Zabriskie Point. The restrooms at the Zabriskie Point viewing area can be seen to have dirt/debris to nearly their rooftops and the terrain along several nearby trails shows substantial erosion.


Miles (rough estimate in excess of 3 miles) of SR190 received extensive damage/and or were completely washed out.


There were also multiple regions along SR190 where damage to the water supply pipes was evident.


As the floodwaters moved downstream to near the Furnace Creek Wash additional damage observed to the roadways and to the Annex which serves as a dormitory for some of the NPS staff. Eight cars parked in the parking lot near the Furnace Creek Inn and Annex and were washed several blocks away and sustained severe damage. A high water mark can be seen on the annex building and indicates a level of approximately 8-10 feet.


A wall in front of the Furnace Creek Inn which was built since the 1985 flood helped divert much of the floodwaters southward toward Badwater, whereas, the floodwaters of 1985 continued westbound causing damage to the Timbisha Shoshone Indian Village and the Furnace Creek Ranch. Power and water supplies have also been damaged. The intersection where SR190 goes north to Furnace Creek and SR178 goes to the south toward Badwater sustained substantial damage and deposition.


Elsewhere in the park, there are additional reports of damaged vehicles on some of the back roads. Due to the vastness of the park not all areas were visited and there are discrepancies at this point in the level of additional damage to roads and property. Flooding was reported (debris flow and deposition) on SR374 (Mud Canyon Rd.) with portions of the road being eroded away. Flooding occurred on SR190 north of SR190 where sheet flow produced deposition along the roadway to depth of 1-2 feet in locations. Southwest of Stovepipe Wells along SR190 also experienced minor flooding and had areas of sheet flow which produced some deposition on the roadway.


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