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What Hydrologists Do About this section

Hydrologists
Hydrologists collect water samples in the field.

Hydrologists study how water moves across and through the Earth’s crust. They study how rain, snow, and other forms of precipitation impact river flows or groundwater levels, and how surface water and groundwater evaporate back into the atmosphere or eventually reach the oceans. Hydrologists analyze how water influences the surrounding environment and how changes to the environment influence the quality and quantity of water. They use their expertise to solve problems concerning water quality and availability.

Duties

Hydrologists typically do the following:

  • Measure the properties of bodies of water, such as volume and stream flow
  • Collect water and soil samples to test for certain properties, such as the pH or pollution levels
  • Analyze data on the environmental impacts of pollution, erosion, drought, and other problems
  • Research ways to minimize the negative impacts of erosion, sedimentation, or pollution on the environment
  • Use computer models to forecast future water supplies, the spread of pollution, floods, and other events
  • Evaluate the feasibility of water-related projects, such as hydroelectric power plants, irrigation systems, and wastewater treatment facilities
  • Prepare written reports and presentations of their findings

Hydrologists may use remote sensing equipment to collect data. They, or technicians whom they supervise, usually install and maintain this equipment. Hydrologists also use sophisticated computer programs to analyze the data collected. Computer models are often developed by hydrologists to help them understand complex datasets.

Hydrologists work closely with engineers, scientists, and public officials to study and manage the water supply. For example, they work with policymakers to develop water conservation plans and with biologists to monitor wildlife in order to allow for their water needs.

Most hydrologists specialize in a particular water source or a certain aspect of the water cycle, such as the evaporation of water from lakes and streams. The following are examples of types of hydrologists:

Groundwater hydrologists study the water below the Earth’s surface. Some groundwater hydrologists focus on water supply and decide the best locations for wells and the amount of water available for pumping. Other groundwater hydrologists focus on the cleanup of groundwater contaminated by spilled chemicals at a factory, an airport, or a gas station. These hydrologists often give advice about the best places to build waste disposal sites to ensure that groundwater is not contaminated.

Surface water hydrologists study water from aboveground sources such as streams, lakes, and snowpacks. They may predict future water levels by tracking usage and precipitation data to help reservoir managers decide when to release or store water. They also produce flood forecasts and help develop flood management plans.

Work done by hydrologists can sometimes include topics typically associated with atmospheric scientists, including meteorologists. Scientists with an education in hydrology and a concentration in water quality are environmental scientists and specialists. Some people with a hydrology background become high school teachers or postsecondary teachers.

Work Environment About this section

Hydrologists
Hydrologists solve problems concerning water quality and availability.

Hydrologists held about 6,500 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of hydrologists were as follows:

Federal government, excluding postal service 28%
State government, excluding education and hospitals 23
Management, scientific, and technical consulting services 21
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 10
Engineering services 10

Hydrologists work in offices and in the field. In offices, hydrologists spend much their time using computers to analyze data and model their findings. In the field, hydrologists may have to wade into lakes and streams to collect samples or to read and inspect monitoring equipment. Hydrologists also need to write reports detailing the status of surface water and groundwater in specific regions. Many jobs require significant travel. Jobs in the private sector may require international travel.

Work Schedules

Most hydrologists work full time. However, the length of daily shifts may vary when hydrologists work in the field.

How to Become a Hydrologist About this section

Hydrologists
Hydrologists may be involved in ensuring waste water and other waste disposal sites do not leak contaminates into the groundwater.

Hydrologists typically need a bachelor’s degree for entry-level jobs; however, some employers prefer to hire candidates who have a master’s degree.

Education

Hydrologists typically need a bachelor’s degree in physical science or a related field, such as natural resources. Employers sometimes prefer to hire candidates who have a master’s degree. Hydrologists conducting research or teaching at the postsecondary level typically need a Ph.D.

Few universities offer undergraduate degrees in hydrology; instead, universities may offer hydrology concentrations in their geosciences, engineering, or earth science programs. Coursework requirements may include math, statistics, and life sciences.

Important Qualities

Analytical skills. Hydrologists need to analyze data collected in the field and examine the results of laboratory tests.

Communication skills. Hydrologists prepare detailed reports that document their research methods and findings. They may have to present their findings to people who do not have a technical background, such as government officials or the general public.

Critical-thinking skills. Hydrologists develop and use models to assess the potential risks to the water supply by pollution, floods, droughts, and other threats. They develop water management plans to handle these threats.

Interpersonal skills. Most hydrologists work as part of a diverse team with engineers, technicians, and other scientists.

Physical stamina. When they are in the field, hydrologists may need to hike to remote locations while carrying testing and sampling equipment.

Pay About this section

Hydrologists

Median annual wages, May 2021

Hydrologists

$84,030

Physical scientists

$82,090

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

The median annual wage for hydrologists was $84,030 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $51,120, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $135,170.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for hydrologists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Management, scientific, and technical consulting services $99,340
Engineering services 95,770
Federal government, excluding postal service 92,130
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 82,440
State government, excluding education and hospitals 73,300

Most hydrologists work full time. However, the length of daily shifts may vary when hydrologists work in the field.

Job Outlook About this section

Hydrologists

Percent change in employment, projected 2020-30

Total, all occupations

8%

Physical scientists

7%

Hydrologists

6%

 

Employment of hydrologists is projected to grow 6 percent from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

About 700 openings for hydrologists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

Demand for the services of hydrologists will stem from increases in human activities such as mining, construction, and hydraulic fracturing. Environmental concerns, especially global climate change and the possibility of sea-level rise in addition to local concerns such as flooding and drought, are likely to increase demand for hydrologists in the future.

Managing the nation’s water resources will be critical as the population grows and increased human activity changes the natural water cycle. Population expansion into areas that were previously uninhabited may increase the risk of flooding, and new communities may encounter water availability issues. These issues will all need the understanding and knowledge that hydrologists have to find sustainable solutions. However, as governments are the main consumers of hydrologic information, budget constraints will limit growth.

Hydrologists will be necessary to assess the threats that global climate change poses to local, state, and national water supplies. For example, changes in climate affect the severity and frequency of droughts and floods. Hydrologists are critical to developing comprehensive water management plans that address these and other problems linked to climate change.

Employment projections data for hydrologists, 2020-30
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2020 Projected Employment, 2030 Change, 2020-30 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Hydrologists

19-2043 6,500 6,900 6 400 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

For more information about hydrology and the work of hydrologists in the federal government, visit

U.S. Geological Survey

For information on federal government requirements for hydrology positions, visit

U.S. Office of Personnel Management

To find job openings for hydrologists in the federal government, visit

USAJOBS

For more information about careers in hydrology, visit

American Geophysical Union

American Geosciences Institute

American Institute of Hydrology

American Water Resources Association

For information from universities about research in the water sciences, visit

Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, INC. (CUAHSI)

For informal education and training in hydrology and other geoscience topics, visit

MetEd

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Hydrologists

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