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Hydrologists Rise to Environmental Challenges

Hydrologists are in great demand in both North America and around the world. Those working in the field say this demand is going to sharply increase in the coming years and decades.

Hydrologists are experts trained to deal with water problems -- problems typically related to water quantity, water distribution and water quality.

Many countries around the world are facing a water crisis, says hydrogeologist Neven Kresic. He's the vice-president of international affairs for the American Institute of Hydrologists (AIH).

For example, Australia is currently facing the worst drought on record. "They're actually importing people left and right -- hydrologists and hydrogeologists," says Kresic. "And then of course the Middle East, China and India are all facing a continuing crisis [and] Africa as a whole continent. So, basically, it's everywhere you turn."

What exactly is a hydrologist? Degrees in "hydrology" are quite rare. Most hydrologists have degrees in civil engineering. Some have degrees in geology or another geoscience. No matter which route they took, hydrologists specialize in the subject of the Earth's water.

Hydrogeologists work with ground water (water beneath the ground), which is used across the world, especially in those arid countries where there's not a lot of surface water. North Africa, the Middle East and Europe use a lot of ground water for drinking. It's preferred to surface water because it doesn't need to be treated as much, says Kresic.

"Most of the water in the world is [used] for agriculture and irrigation," says Kresic. "About 70 percent of all water we use for any purpose, most of that goes to agriculture and irrigation, and ground water is more than half of that."

So what can a hydrologist do to solve water problems?

"What you can help with is assessing the resource -- the quantity, the quality and most importantly how to manage it," says Kresic.

If you think North America is immune from water problems, think again. Hydrologists are also needed here to tackle some serious challenges. "Water is becoming more scarce everywhere, and on the North American continent as well," says Kresic.

What's causing all these water problems around the world? There isn't one simple answer to that question. But it's possible to identify some main culprits.

Kresic points to growing populations in developing countries. More people means more demand. Also, as countries get richer, water usage increases. Partly this is due to improved sanitation. But it's largely due to changing diets.

"If you gain a little wealth, you want to eat like the Western world, so you'd like more meat," says Kresic. "And to produce a pound of meat [requires] tens of thousands of gallons of water."

It would be better if people ate more grain instead of meat, he says, but not all grain is ideal. Rice is the worst when it comes to the amount of water needed, says Kresic.

The increased urbanization of many countries also leads to water problems. "People are moving to cities, and there's a crisis because infrastructure is old," Kresic says.

"A city can double in size in five or 10 years in developing countries, so there is a big crisis. And then, wherever there is a crisis, which is pretty much everywhere, you need people who deal with water to work on that."

As if all this weren't enough, another threat looms on the horizon: climate change. Climate change is likely to fuel a huge demand for hydrologists over the coming decades. Experts are still debating the extent to which human activities have caused it, but almost no one denies that it's happening or that the implications are huge.

"Climate change is a reality and we have to deal with it," says Ross. He says climate change will lead to many challenges for hydrologists to tackle.

Countries that depend on surface water (as opposed to ground water, which is under the surface) will be particularly affected if there's less water in streams and rivers. Some of these countries, such as China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have rapidly growing populations.

"They're booming," says Kresic. "They rely a lot on surface water and most of it comes from melting snow and ice on the Himalayas, and if that goes away in a few decades or 50 years or whatever, what are they going to do?"

Part of the solution will be for countries to reuse more of their water. That even includes, gulp, the water from your toilet.

"We'll eventually drink waste water that's treated so that we can drink it -- that's inevitable," says Kresic. "And of course ground water is very important, but you can't pump it forever if it's not renewed. So, I think the crisis will keep going."

Pasternack agrees that climate change will lead to ongoing, and greatly increasing, demand for hydrologists. "People are agreeing that climate change is occurring and that it is driven by human activities, so now the desire is to have insights into what will be the significance for water supply, for water quality, and for environmental quality down the line for the next 50 years," he says.

All the evidence seems pretty overwhelming. Water problems are getting worse and therefore experts such as hydrologists are needed.

So what kinds of qualifications do you need to be part of the solution?

"The demand is highest for people with master's degrees," says Gregory Pasternack, a professor of hydrology at UC Davis. "We graduate a couple of students every year with master's degrees and they don't have any trouble at all getting a job straightaway. The demand definitely exceeds the supply."

Rick Ross is the executive director of a water association. He says those with four-year degrees will be increasingly in demand. "I believe that there's going to be a trend toward bachelor's level, simply because when the demand hits, it's going to be exponential and it takes to many years to turn out a master's [graduate]," says Ross.

Pasternack says undergraduate students in engineering are currently able to find jobs in hydrology. Employers are looking for management capabilities, confidence and the ability to communicate well. "Even if they have really good grades, if they can't work well in a collaborative environment and work with the clients, then that's an issue," says Pasternack.

The hydrology program at UC Davis ensures students have expertise in various branches of science.

"That seems to be where the future of working on the environment is, trying to be at the interface between traditional biology, chemistry, and physics -- you can't just have one piece of that," says Pasternack.

"An engineer would just have the physics part of it. We require our students to have a year of biology, chemistry and physics, and two years of math as a prerequisite before they even get started in the program, so they have that capability to go across those different branches."

A recent graduate with a bachelor's degree got a job with a river restoration and surface water hydrology company. Her tasks included developing project components ranging from proposal preparation to engineering design, hydraulic modeling, report preparation and permit submittal, working on stream restoration projects for fish passage improvement, doing water quality studies in coastal lagoons, and doing watershed settlement.

The AIH offers certification in the areas of surface water hydrology, ground water hydrology (a.k.a. hydrogeology), and water quality. Even without a university education, you can get certified by the AIH as a hydrology technician.

With just a high school education and some supplemental summer courses, "You may become eligible to be certified as a technician, which means you go out, you measure, you collect samples, you do field work a lot, you can also work in the lab, but you don't really have a university degree," says Kresic.

Hydrologists find employment in government, with large engineering firms, in private consulting, and with international NGOs such as UNESCO.

Politics is a big factor in the demand for hydrologists. If the public is concerned about the environment, then politicians will spend the money to address environmental challenges. For this reason, California is among the states where demand for hydrologists is highest, Pasternack says.

"California is one of the states that's doing a huge amount in the environment, so both federal and state monies are in play and there's a lot of that in Sacramento," says Pasternack. "There's a lot of jobs in the Sacramento area and there isn't enough supply to meet that demand."

Flood control and flood mapping is the traditional main role of surface water hydrology. This involves such things as trying to figure out, if you had a 100-year flood, whether somebody's house is in or out of the flood plain. A lot of companies are engaged in doing that, especially after Hurricane Katrina, says Pasternack.

Kresic says there are many qualities that a hydrologist should have, but at the top of the list is an appreciation of the vital importance of water. "Because water is a right, it's not just a simple good, a commodity," he says. "It's a human right to have access to water. I would say understanding that, being compassionate [is essential for a hydrologist].

"[Also], someone who'd be willing to look at the whole picture, to think in a broad sense, because it's all about one big cycle of water," Kresic says. "It's all connected, so you have to look at the big picture in this water business."


American Institute of Hydrology
The society for certification and registration of professional hydrologists & hydrogeologists

Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science
More than 100 universities involved in hydrologic science belong to this organization

University of California - Hydrology Program
Hydrologic sciences graduate program

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