Use your Environmental Engineering Degree in Water Systems

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Water is a valuable resource that is essential for sustaining life. Consequently, the systems that manage it within human societies are of critical importance for the survival of populations in developed areas.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are approximately 155,693 water systems in this country alone.  Of all the community water systems in the nation, 8 percent provide water to 82 percent of the population through major municipal systems.

As an engineer, you can play an important role in the management of water at home and abroad. A background in water systems can prove invaluable, providing you with the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career using your specialized skills and knowledge. But in addition to simply enjoying a personally rewarding position, you will be able to serve the public as you help preserve and make the most of one of the world’s most valuable resources.

Natural and engineered systems

When it comes to water management, engineers work with both natural and engineered systems, some of which are a combination of both. These include strategic structures critical for the transportation, purification and storage of water, such as:

  • Sewer systems
  • Waste treatment plants
  • Drinking water distribution systems
  • Water irrigation systems
  • Water filtration systems

As an engineer, you may be in a role where you are responsible not just for the design of these systems, but the operation and management of them as well, depending on your job title.

One way that many professionals enter this specialized field is through the study of hydraulic engineering, a sub-discipline of civil engineering. The specialization focuses on the flow and movement of fluids, primarily water. Many of these systems rely heavily on the natural force of gravity. Engineers in this area are also tasked with the design of related structures, such as the channels, dams, bridges, levees and canals that aid in the process. Others enter the field through a background in environmental engineering. With a degree in that particular facet of engineering, you are uniquely equipped to manage natural resources in an effective, but responsible, manner, which is a perfect fit for a position in these water systems.

When working on a natural or engineered hydraulic system, the first factor typically considered is water volume. Other important considerations include sediment, system components, reservoirs, purification methods and more. The many variables and pieces involved in providing clean water to communities is one of the reasons that these positions often call for a very specialized background in both engineering and hydraulic systems.

At the foundation of these natural and engineered water systems are the principles of fluid mechanics. This branch of mechanics studies the properties of fluids in different states, as well as the forces that act on them and the effects of these stresses. While basic physics courses likely gave you a solid overview of the topic, a career in water systems will require a deeper dive into the properties and implications of fluid mechanics.

The importance of water chemistry

There is more to these careers than simply designing structures and monitoring their management. Water treatment is another important aspect of ensuring the delivery of safe water to the millions of people who live in the U.S. The process typically includes the removal of contaminants from the liquid via physical, chemical and biological processes. Examples of common methods include disinfection and coagulation, as well as different forms of filtration. Through these processes, the water is purified from contaminants such as bacteria, algae, minerals and suspended solids that could be harmful to the population.

The resulting drinking water is held to rigorous standards in the U.S. to ensure the safety of those who consume it. Consequently, ensuring the effectiveness and efficiency of these systems are of the utmost importance. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations regulate contaminants such as microorganisms, inorganic and organic chemicals and disinfection byproducts.

You may not be a chemist, but some basic knowledge of chemistry is critical for working in natural and engineered water systems. Maintaining chemical equilibrium is critical for the operation and success of the processes. You will need a deep understanding of the pH scale and a familiarity with how acids, bases and other factors affect that balance. Keeping the water’s pH balanced is important for controlling corrosion and deposition in many water system processes, GE Power and Water reported. Understanding other related topics, such as chemical thermodynamics and oxidation and reduction processes, are also key, as well as knowing the acceptable levels for other chemical species used in water treatment.

This water is not only necessary for drinking. Purified water is also used for industrial purposes such as for mechanical processing, powering boilers and cooling products. The vast need for the systems that provide and purify this natural commodity consequently results in a number of rewarding careers for those with the appropriate education and background.

Careers in natural and engineered systems

With a background in civil or environmental engineering and a knowledge of water systems, a number of career opportunities will open for you. These include positions such as:

  • Water resources engineer
  • Water/wastewater engineer
  • Systems engineer
  • Project engineer
  • Desalination engineer

Any of these positions will allow you to use your specialized skills and knowledge to play an important role in ensuring water delivery to large numbers of people. For example, as a water resources engineer, your primary responsibility would be to ensure proper water purification by creating new equipment and systems for processing. You will combine a knowledge of environmental policy measures with your skills in engineering to ensure that the public has safe drinking water. Your job will also likely include the responsibility of testing the water, perhaps with a team. If contamination levels are above an acceptable range, you will be tasked with designing solutions to remedy the problem. No matter what specifications your workplace requires, you will need to be consistently looking for new ways to increase the efficiency and efficacy of the systems.

UCR Water Systems

In a position as a wastewater engineer you will be tasked with similar responsibilities. In this role, you can perform activities as diverse as designing a dam, figuring out where to build a water treatment facility or monitoring the quality of drinking water. Wastewater engineering typically focuses specifically on the best way to collect and move rainwater for the use of human populations. Water reclamation and the treatment of wastewater also fall into this specialty. An additional challenge faced by wastewater engineers today is climate change. As temperatures rise, creating droughts and water shortages, engineers must develop new ways of conserving, storing and transporting the valuable resource that is water. However, a larger problem is that wastewater treatment facilities themselves contribute to the problem of global warming through their emission of greenhouse gases, which provides another challenge for engineers to work around.

Because of shortages in fresh water, engineers and other scientists are looking for ways to leverage the world’s ocean water for human consumption. This is typically done through a process called desalination. As a desalination engineer, you will use processes such as thermal and membrane desalination to turn ocean water into a drinkable resource. While the process is currently possible, it is extremely expensive. If it is going to become a viable option for providing sizeable populations of people with large quantities water, engineers will need to find ways to make the process more efficient and affordable. With a background in water systems, you could be at the forefront of the efforts to leverage the valuable resource of the ocean’s water.

In any of these positions that deal with natural and engineered water systems, you will use you knowledge and skills to ensure that people in the U.S. – and perhaps abroad – are provided with pure drinking water.

Prospects are bright for jobs in environmental engineering. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, positions for environmental engineers are expected to grow by 12 percent between 2014 and 2024, much faster than the average across all industries. The organization reported that the average annual salary for one of these jobs is $83,360.

Positions for civil engineers are promising as well, with an expected growth rate of 8 percent through 2024, which is about average. The BLS reported that the median annual salary earned by engineers in these positions is $82,050.

Start your career today

Ready to jumpstart your career? Consider enrolling in the University of California, Riverside’s Master of Science in Engineering Program. By choosing to pursue an emphasis in environmental engineering, you will gain the expertise and knowledge you will need to excel at a job in water systems.

Through the degree’s course on water chemistry in natural and engineered systems, you’ll learn about how the fundamental principle of chemical equilibrium can be applied to these treatment systems to ensure water quality. The course covers topics such as chemical thermodynamics, oxidation and reduction equilibrium, parameters for characterizing water quality and chemical speciation computer models.

To increase the depth of your knowledge of water systems and improve your hire-ability, contact the UCR admissions department today to learn more about the online master’s in engineering program.


Recommended Reading

The Growing Need for Advanced Water Treatment

Industry Spotlight: Roles for Engineers in Water Conservation

University of California, Environmental Engineering Program




Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Water Systems

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Environmental Engineers 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Civil Engineers 

American Society of Civil Engineers, Water Resources

Teach Engineering, Curricular Unit: Environmental Engineering and Water Chemistry 

Teach Engineering, Lesson: Introduction to Water Chemistry 

Wikipedia, Hydraulic Engineering 

Science Buddies, Water or Wastewater Engineer

Wikipedia, Water Treatment 

EPA, National Primary Drinking Water Regulations