You are on page 1of 6

What is hydrology and what do hydrologists do?

Water is one of our most precious natural resources. Without it, there would be no life on earth.
Hydrology has evolved as a science in response to the need to understand the complex water
system of the earth and help solve water problems. This hydrology primer gives you information
about water on Earth and humans' involvement and use of water.


Hydrology is the study of water

Water is one of our most important natural resources. Without it, there would be no life on earth.
The supply of water available for our use is limited by nature. Although there is plenty of water
on earth, it is not always in the right place, at the right time and of the right quality. Adding to
the problem is the increasing evidence that chemical wastes improperly discarded yesterday are
showing up in our water supplies today. Hydrology has evolved as a science in response to the
need to understand the complex water systems of the Earth and help solve water problems.
Hydrologists play a vital role in finding solutions to water problems, and interesting and
challenging careers are available to those who choose to study hydrology.

Water and People

Estimates of water use in the United States indicate that about 355 billion gallons per day (one
thousand million gallons per day, abbreviated Bgal/d) were withdrawn for all uses during 2010.
This total has declined about 17 percent since 1980. Fresh groundwater withdrawals (76.0
Bgal/d) during 2010 were 8 percent less than during 1980. Fresh surface-water withdrawals for
2010 were 230 Bgal/d, 18 percent less than in 1980.

Much of our water use is hidden. Think about what you had for lunch. A hamburger, for example,
requires water to raise wheat for the bun, to grow hay and corn to feed the cattle and to process
the bread and beef. Together with french fries and a soft drink, this all-American meal uses about
1,500 gallons of water--enough to fill a small swimming pool. How about your clothes? To grow
cotton for a pair of jeans takes about 400 gallons. A shirt requires about 400 gallons. How do you
get to school or to the store? To produce the amount of finished steel in a car has in the past
required about 32,000 gallons of water. Similarly, the steel in a 30-pound bicycle required 480
gallons. This shows that industry must continue to strive to reduce water use through
manufacturing processes that use less water, and through recycling of water.

What is Hydrology?

Hydrology is the science that encompasses the occurrence, distribution, movement and
properties of the waters of the earth and their relationship with the environment within each
phase of the hydrologic cycle. The water cycle, or hydrologic cycle, is a continuous process by
which water is purified by evaporation and transported from the earth's surface (including the
oceans) to the atmosphere and back to the land and oceans. All of the physical, chemical and
biological processes involving water as it travels its various paths in the atmosphere, over and
beneath the earth's surface and through growing plants, are of interest to those who study the
hydrologic cycle. There are many pathways the water may take in its continuous cycle of falling
as rainfall or snowfall and returning to the atmosphere. It may be captured for millions of years
in polar ice caps. It may flow to rivers and finally to the sea. It may soak into the soil to be
evaporated directly from the soil surface as it dries or be transpired by growing plants. It may
percolate through the soil to ground water reservoirs (aquifers) to be stored or it may flow to
wells or springs or back to streams by seepage. The cycle for water may be short, or it may take
millions of years. People tap the water cycle for their own uses. Water is diverted temporarily
from one part of the cycle by pumping it from the ground or drawing it from a river or lake. It is
used for a variety of activities such as households, businesses and industries; for irrigation of
farms and parklands; and for production of electric power. After use, water is returned to another
part of the cycle: perhaps discharged downstream or allowed to soak into the ground. Used water
normally is lower in quality, even after treatment, which often poses a problem for downstream
users. The hydrologist studies the fundamental transport processes to be able to describe the
quantity and quality of water as it moves through the cycle (evaporation, precipitation,
streamflow, infiltration, ground water flow, and other components). The engineering hydrologist,
or water resources engineer, is involved in the planning, analysis, design, construction and
operation of projects for the control, utilization, and management of water resources. Water
resources problems are also the concern of meteorologists, oceanographers, geologists,
chemists, physicists, biologists, economists, political scientists, specialists in applied mathematics
and computer science, and engineers in several fields.

What Hydrologists Do?

Hydrologists apply scientific knowledge and mathematical principles to solve water-related

problems in society: problems of quantity, quality and availability. They may be concerned with
finding water supplies for cities or irrigated farms, or controlling river flooding or soil erosion. Or,
they may work in environmental protection: preventing or cleaning up pollution or locating sites
for safe disposal of hazardous wastes. Persons trained in hydrology may have a wide variety of
job titles. Scientists and engineers in hydrology may be involved in both field investigations and
office work. In the field, they may collect basic data, oversee testing of water quality, direct field
crews and work with equipment. Many jobs require travel, some abroad. A hydrologist may
spend considerable time doing field work in remote and rugged terrain. In the office, hydrologists
do many things such as interpreting hydrologic data and performing analyses for determining
possible water supplies. Much of their work relies on computers for organizing, summarizing and
analyzing masses of data, and for modeling studies such as the prediction of flooding and the
consequences of reservoir releases or the effect of leaking underground oil storage tanks. The
work of hydrologists is as varied as the uses of water and may range from planning multimillion
dollar interstate water projects to advising homeowners about backyard drainage problems.

Surface Water

Most cities meet their needs for water by withdrawing it from the nearest river, lake or reservoir.
Hydrologists help cities by collecting and analyzing the data needed to predict how much water
is available from local supplies and whether it will be sufficient to meet the city's projected future
needs. To do this, hydrologists study records of rainfall, snowpack depths and river flows that are
collected and compiled by hydrologists in various government agencies. They inventory the
extent river flow already is being used by others.

Managing reservoirs can be quite complex, because they generally serve many purposes.
Reservoirs increase the reliability of local water supplies. Hydrologists use topographic maps and
aerial photographs to determine where the reservoir shorelines will be and to calculate reservoir
depths and storage capacity. This work ensures that, even at maximum capacity, no highways,
railroads or homes would be flooded.

Deciding how much water to release and how much to store depends upon the time of year, flow
predictions for the next several months, and the needs of irrigators and cities as well as
downstream water-users that rely on the reservoir. If the reservoir also is used for recreation or
for generation of hydroelectric power, those requirements must be considered. Decisions must
be coordinated with other reservoir managers along the river. Hydrologists collect the necessary
information, enter it into a computer, and run computer models to predict the results under
various operating strategies. On the basis of these studies, reservoir managers can make the best
decision for those involved.

The availability of surface water for swimming, drinking, industrial or other uses sometimes is
restricted because of pollution. Pollution can be merely an unsightly and inconvenient nuisance,
or it can be an invisible, but deadly, threat to the health of people, plants and animals.

Hydrologists assist public health officials in monitoring public water supplies to ensure that health
standards are met. When pollution is discovered, environmental engineers work with
hydrologists in devising the necessary sampling program. Water quality in estuaries, streams,
rivers and lakes must be monitored, and the health of fish, plants and wildlife along their
stretches surveyed. Related work concerns acid rain and its effects on aquatic life, and the
behavior of toxic metals and organic chemicals in aquatic environments. Hydrologic and water
quality mathematical models are developed and used by hydrologists for planning and
management and predicting water quality effects of changed conditions. Simple analyses such
as pH, turbidity, and oxygen content may be done by hydrologists in the field. Other chemical
analyses require more sophisticated laboratory equipment. In the past, municipal and industrial
sewage was a major source of pollution for streams and lakes. Such wastes often received only
minimal treatment, or raw wastes were dumped into rivers. Today, we are more aware of the
consequences of such actions, and billions of dollars must be invested in pollution-control
equipment to protect the waters of the earth. Other sources of pollution are more difficult to
identify and control. These include road deicing salts, storm runoff from urban areas and
farmland, and erosion from construction sites.


Groundwater, pumped from beneath the earth's surface, is often cheaper, more convenient and
less vulnerable to pollution than surface water. Therefore, it is commonly used for public water
supplies. Groundwater provides the largest source of usable water storage in the United States.
Underground reservoirs contain far more water than the capacity of all surface reservoirs and
lakes, including the Great Lakes. In some areas, ground water may be the only option. Some
municipalities survive solely on groundwater.

Hydrologists estimate the volume of water stored underground by measuring water levels in local
wells and by examining geologic records from well-drilling to determine the extent, depth and
thickness of water-bearing sediments and rocks. Before an investment is made in full-sized wells,
hydrologists may supervise the drilling of test wells. They note the depths at which water is
encountered and collect samples of soils, rock and water for laboratory analyses. They may run
a variety of geophysical tests on the completed hole, keeping and accurate log of their
observations and test results. Hydrologists determine the most efficient pumping rate by
monitoring the extent that water levels drop in the pumped well and in its nearest neighbors.
Pumping the well too fast could cause it to go dry or could interfere with neighboring wells. Along
the coast, overpumping can cause saltwater intrusion. By plotting and analyzing these data,
hydrologists can estimate the maximum and optimum yields of the well.

Polluted ground water is less visible, but more insidious and difficult to clean up, than pollution
in rivers and lakes. Ground water pollution most often results from improper disposal of wastes
on land. Major sources include industrial and household chemicals and garbage landfills,
industrial waste lagoons, tailings and process wastewater from mines, oil field brine pits, leaking
underground oil storage tanks and pipelines, sewage sludge and septic systems. Hydrologists
provide guidance in the location of monitoring wells around waste disposal sites and sample
them at regular intervals to determine if undesirable leachate--contaminated water containing
toxic or hazardous chemicals--is reaching the ground water. In polluted areas, hydrologists may
collect soil and water samples to identify the type and extent of contamination. The chemical
data then are plotted on a map to show the size and direction of waste movement. In complex
situations, computer modeling of water flow and waste migration provides guidance for a clean-
up program. In extreme cases, remedial actions may require excavation of the polluted soil.
Today, most people and industries realize that the amount of money invested in prevention is far
less than that of cleanup. Hydrologists often are consulted for selection of proper sites for new
waste disposal facilities. The danger of pollution is minimized by locating wells in areas of deep
ground water and impermeable soils. Other practices include lining the bottom of a landfill with
watertight materials, collecting any leachate with drains, and keeping the landfill surface covered
as much as possible. Careful monitoring is always necessary.