Duncan, Arizona has a long history of flooding, levee failures

State has been working to update levees in the National Levee Database since 2017
In each of the three flooding situations, the levee on the Gila River did not hold, sending water into the town.
Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 5:03 PM MST
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DUNCAN, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - The flooding that inundated the town of Duncan was made worse by the failure of a levee that was meant to protect the town of nearly 800 people. But over the years, the city in Greenlee County has had a long history of flooding and failures in its levee blocking off the Gila River.

The flooding on Monday covered city streets in water and left many businesses turning to sandbags as a last line of defense from the rising water. But it is not the first time the area has flooded or experienced an issue with a levee.

Arizona’s Family was in Duncan in 1993 when the area flooded almost as it did in 2022. Flooding also occurred in 1978 and again in 2005. In each of those instances, the levee on the Gila River did not hold, sending water into the town. Greenlee County’s Hazard Mitigation Plan, published in 2021, identifies the Duncan area as highly likely to experience a catastrophic levee failure.

In 2017, the federal government notified Gov. Doug Ducey there was a program to inventory and review levees across the state. However, as of last August, it does not appear that the review was complete.

Meantime, those levees may see more stress due to the drying desert climate and long-term drought. “When we’re dealing with drought situations, what that does is it makes a very dry atmosphere, a very thirsty atmosphere and ground can get hardened,” Dr. Erinanne Saffell, Arizona’s State Climatologist, said.

Saffell said the extreme drought we are experiencing could make flooding worse when it rains. “So the water that we get during our monsoon season often doesn’t go into the ground, and instead it runs off,” she said. “And that’s why we’re more likely to have flash flooding events in summer.”

All of that water also leads to an increased flow in area waterways, including the Gila River, which stresses levees meant to protect towns like Duncan.


Source: Greenlee County All Hazard Mitigation Plan

  • December 1978: Heavy rainfall over several days caused widespread flooding in Arizona. Water from the Gila River rose to seven feet deep in the town of Duncan and 75 homes were reported destroyed when a dike broke.
  • December 1992-January 1993: Heavy rainfall along with melting snowpack caused flooding of rivers in Greenlee County. A 400-foot breach in a protective dike caused five businesses and six residences to be flooded with up to two feet of water.
  • February 2005: Moderate flooding occurred on the Gila River near Duncan when a section in the town’s dike system broke, flooding one structure and a state highway near Duncan High School.