Career spotlight: Hydrologist

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Environmental Engineering |

Water availability and quality remain fundamental challenges in most parts of the world, meaning that the special skills of hydrologists will be in high demand in the years ahead. According to the 2017 update to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme report, titled “Progress Drinking Water, Sanitation and Hygiene,” more than one-tenth of the world’s population – 844 million people – lacked access to even basic drinking water services.

For those affected, collection times from “improved” (i.e., designed for safety) water sources often exceed 30 minutes. However, many resort instead to unimproved wells and springs or rely upon surface water, neither of which is guaranteed to meet acceptable standards for sanitation.

The ongoing reliance on these alternatives reveals the related problem of ensuring sufficient supplies of water safe to consume for all purposes. While basic water access is highly variable by geography, all parts of the globe still struggle with issues such as pollution and conservation:

  • In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prepared a report for Congress documenting the prevalence of combined sewer overflows in the Great Lakes region. Many municipalities there have legacy sewer systems handling both sewage and precipitation runoff, meaning they can overflow after heavy storms.
  • The EPA had previously estimated that 3.5 million people in the country became ill every year from such overflows. Bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms carried in this contaminated water can cause a wide range of illnesses, from flu to hepatitis.
  • The same solutions that help preserve water quality can also boost water conservation. Compact development that limits the number of impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, can reduce runoff and allow for shorter water pipes to serve the community. Accordingly, there will be fewer leaks.

Today’s hydrologists play pivotal roles in improving the availability and quality of water supplies everywhere. Their typical activities include key tasks such as evaluating major water projects such as dams and irrigation systems, forecasting water supply levels and understanding the impacts of pollution, erosion and flooding.

Hydrologist career overview

Hydrologists apply scientific knowledge of how water moves throughout the earth’s crust to practical issues of sustainability. Their work may bring them into contact with professional fields such as environmental and civil engineering, in addition to geology and geography.

While there are many types of hydrologists, two main categories cover a wide range of the common activities professionals usually contribute to:

Groundwater hydrologists

Groundwater is a vital source of fresh water and an alternative to surface water sources, making it a staple of municipal water supplies. It is often less expensive and more convenient to tap into groundwater via an aquifer than it is to extract water from a river or lake. Plus, groundwater is usually less contaminated with runoff than these other sources.

Hydrologists who specialize in groundwater assist with the assessment of related projects, as well as with cleanup efforts. They might:

  • Oversee the drilling of test wells into water-bearing rock and sediment, before a full-sized one is cleared for development.
  • Estimate the volume of water in a potential underground source by analyzing geologic records and documentation of any past drilling results.
  • Determine the ideal pumping rate for a groundwater well, so that it does not go dry or become prone to saltwater intrusion.
  • Collect water and soil samples from wells near landfills, anaerobic lagoons and oil fields, to evaluate current contamination and consult on cleanup.
  • Advise on the locations of waste disposal sites to minimize the chances of major future contamination.

A hydrologist tests samples for contamination.

Surface water hydrologists

As the name indicates, surface water hydrologists focus on water from lakes, rivers and reservoirs, which collectively accounted for almost two-thirds (64 percent) of public supply withdrawals in 2010, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. They address some similar supply-related and environmental issues to groundwater hydrologists, but do so within the context of the unique complexities of managing these more heavily utilized water sources.

Flooding mitigation is a key task for surface water hydrologists. With that in mind, they may gather historical records of rainfall and snowpack, analyze river flows and calculate the necessary boundaries and depth of a reservoir. This information is useful in deciding how much water to release and seeing what areas, if any, might flood under severe conditions. The extreme rainfall on Harris County, Texas, from Hurricane Harvey demonstrated the risks of reservoir overflows.

Surface water hydrologists also evaluate pollution levels and utilization. Unlike groundwater, surface water sources may be used for swimming and hydroelectric power generation, creating additional safety and sustainability requirements for hydrologists to consider.

Career outlook for all hydrologists

Due to continued population growth and growing attention to environmental concerns, hydrologists should see solid employment growth in the near future. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has projected a 7 percent increase in employment from 2014 to 2024.

Hydrologists must have at least a bachelor’s degree, although a master’s or doctorate degree is necessary for advanced positions in leadership and research. Undergraduate degrees in hydrology are rare, meaning many hydrologists instead attain a BS in engineering or earth science. Similarly, graduate degree programs may include hydrology courses under the umbrella of environmental science.

Beyond educational credentials, some hydrologists opt for voluntary professional certifications from bodies such as the American Institute of Hydrology (AIH). The AIH offers certifications for both groundwater and surface water hydrology and also for water quality.

The median 2016 salary for a U.S.-based hydrologist was $80,480, according to the BLS. That number is well above the median salary for all occupations.

You can begin a rewarding career as a hydrologist by earning an online masters in environmental engineering from the University of California – Riverside. The program includes a specific focus on water resources and the freedom of a 100 percent online format. To learn more, visit the program overview page, where you can also sign up for additional information about your options.

Recommended Readings:

Use your Environmental Engineering Degree in Water Systems

The Growing Need for Advanced Water Treatment