Every winter it seems like there’s at least one set of good rains that soaks the region while also causing rivers to rise and road crossings to be treacherous. Some years have rains that benefit the region more than others. Here’s a look at past winter rains and some winter flood events that occurred long ago.
The two lead headlines of an article in the Feb. 5, 1911 Arizona Republican tells a lot about folks’ feeling of rain, “RAIN GOD IS SMILING, Showering His Favors on People of Arizona.” In the case of the rainfall at that point, flooding was considered a good thing. The article later says, “more, and still better, Tonto creek was in flood and cavorting around as though it was going to be held personally responsible for the filling of the reservoir.”
It’s important to note that the way flood is being used is a little bit different. Flood is almost being used as a synonym for rain, particularly a large rain. There also seems to be an element of expecting annual “floods” and understanding that while dangerous, they are also needed, particularly for livestock and crops.
Just because floods were expected and dealt with as a part of life, doesn’t mean that there weren’t some particularly challenging ones —1886 had one such event. Early February saw heavy rains that created losses south of Payson. According to the Feb. 6, 1886 Arizona Silver Belt, Andy Blake lost his house and 20 acres of land. The damage was worse in Sunflower. “A.A. Ward’s house at Sunflower, was entirely destroyed. Ward in attempting to carry a woman to a place where her clothes would remain dry, fell and in turn was assisted by the woman beyond the flood, where they could drip.”
The granddaddy of all winter flood events was in 1891. Between Feb. 18 and 26 in 1891, Arizona received large amounts of rain. A history of the Maricopa County Flood District lists it as the maximum flood of record for Maricopa County. (http://www.fcd.maricopa.gov/education/ history.aspx)
Much of that water came through Tonto Basin and the entire region was hit hard. Fatalities occurred and homes were washed away. According to an article in the March 7, 1891 Arizona Silver Belt, “most of the ranches along Tonto Creek suffered by the flood. Many of the occupants took to the hills. We are informed that property along the creek is now offered for a song.”
Closer to Payson, there were plenty of damages too. In the aforementioned March 7, 1891 Arizona Silver Belt article they say that “Rye valley looks like it had been struck by lightning. Brady’s house was not washed away but was torn down and removed. O.C. Felton’s house stands on high ground and the water did not reach it. Most of his land, however, including the orchard, one of the best in the county, was completely destroyed.” However the Silver Belt did seem to find a bright side. With regards to J.W. Boardman in Rye, “he has enough wood on his place, deposited by the flood, to keep him in fuel for two years.”
Once Roosevelt Dam was built, winter floods were embraced as they help fill Roosevelt Lake. One aspect of just how quickly the lake can be filled. This clip from the Dec. 18, 1915 Arizona Silver Belt helps to show this.
“But a year ago the great reservoir was not filled to half of its capacity. Then nature rushed the supply. The flood gates of heaven were opened wide and down poured such torrents of rain as to the oldest resident of Arizona were unknown. From mountain gulch and canyon, into the lower water ways, poured the floods and through the two main channels of the Salt river and the Tonto creek, nature’s immense donation flowed into the Tonto basin, filling Roosevelt lake to the brim.”
Ultimately, winter rains are an important part of life here. We should always take to heart this clip from the April 19, 1900 Arizona Silver Belt:
“The early part of last week our cattlemen wore a discouraged look; Wednesday morning when they awoke and found it raining, a broad smile spread o’er their features; by Thursday morning this smile had changed to a grin, and at present writing they can’t talk without laughing, they are so pleased over the precipitation.”