The Durance is a river in the south-east of France flowing into the Rhône, of which it is the second tributary after the Saône in terms of length and the third after the Saône and the Isère in terms of flow. 323.2 km long, the Durance is the most important river in Provence.

A so-called “capricious” river, once feared for its floods, it has been subject to a continuous effort of development, in particular since the 19th century, for hydraulic purposes (supply of drinking water for Marseille and surrounding towns), agricultural (irrigation of 75,000 ha of crops, responsible for withdrawals of up to 114 m3/s of water from the river, often at low water) and hydroelectric (with the Verdon, 6 to 7 billion kWh produced by year).

The Durance has its sources around 2,390 meters above sea level, at the meadow of Gondran, on the slopes of the Anges peak. The sources are located below the old Gondran fort, in the commune of Montgenèvre, in the French department of Hautes-Alpes, near the Italian border. It flows into the Rhône a few kilometers southwest of Avignon, between Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhône, the limit of which it marks.

Its tributary which constitutes the longest system, the Clarée, takes its source on the slopes of Mont Thabor (3,178 m), at Lac de la Clarée located just under the Rochilles threshold, at an altitude of 2,450 m, also in the Hautes-Alpes. It follows the Clarée valley and, after a course of 28 km, joins the Durance (which is 8 km long at that time and has a lower flow).

The Durance crosses two departments: Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. It serves as an administrative boundary between those of Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhône, and makes a brief incursion into the Var:

  • from its source to Lake Serre-Ponçon (around 75 kilometers), the Durance flows in the Hautes-Alpes department;
  • from its confluence with the Ubaye to its confluence with the Sasse upstream of Sisteron (around 50 kilometers), it forms the limit between the Hautes-Alpes and the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence;
  • from its confluence with the Sasse to one kilometer before its confluence with the Verdon (approximately 65 kilometers), it crosses the department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence;
  • on its last kilometer it separates the department of Vaucluse from that of Var;
  • from its confluence with the Verdon to its confluence with the Rhône (approximately 105 kilometers), it serves as a boundary between the departments of Vaucluse and Bouches-du-Rhône.

The Durance waters invovles 106 municipalities in five departments. The towns which border it are installed in such a way as to protect themselves from flooding: on the upper course, rather steep, they are installed on rocky projections overlooking the river (Briançon, Embrun, Sisteron); on the lower, wider course, they are set back at the foot of the hills (Manosque, Pertuis, Cavaillon, Châteaurenard). Only Avignon is in the plain, and even today it must protect itself from the great floods of the Durance.

The river is famous historically for its unstable course and violent floods. In the 12th century the Durance had swept away the town of Rama (between Briançon and Embrun, with the confluence of Biaisse).

The catastrophic floods of 1843, 1856, 1886 attained 5,000 to 6,000 cubic metres per second (180,000 to 210,000 cu ft/s). For comparison, the Seine flooding of 1910 was estimated at approximately 2,400 cubic metres per second (85,000 cu ft/s). Even lesser floods were devastating. The flood of 31 May and 1 June 1877 swept away the bridge of Tallard.

In the 20th century, the floods were less frequent and violent thanks to the dams and the re-afforestation in the Durance basin, but there were still serious floods in 1957 and 1994 with maxima measured at Mirabeau and at Sisteron of 2,800 cubic metres per second (99,000 cu ft/s); and this volume was increased at the confluence with the Verdon by a further 500 cubic metres per second (18,000 cu ft/s).

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