What does a Hydrologist do?

D. Jeffress

A hydrologist studies the physical properties of the earth's water systems by performing extensive field and laboratory research. He or she may study the role of water in an ecosystem, measure the amount of rainfall in a certain area, or test water samples to determine the presence of pollutants. Most hydrologists work for universities, private research institutions, government agencies, environmental protection organizations, and engineering consultation firms.

A hydrologist might take water samples from a lake to check it for pollutants.
A hydrologist might take water samples from a lake to check it for pollutants.

Research hydrologists frequently dedicate months or even years to specific projects which require tracking changes in water systems over time. A scientist might determine the amount of ground or surface water in a given area, the rate of precipitation, and the ways in which water is used by people, plants, and animals. He or she might also gather data about the negative or positive effects of human activity on a marine ecosystem.

Hydrologists study the effects of water pollution.
Hydrologists study the effects of water pollution.

A hydrologist might take samples directly from lakes, streams, or other water sources to analyze water content and check for pollutants. He or she might also retrieve nearby soil and plant samples to determine the effects of water pollution on living organisms. Hydrologists often conduct several laboratory trials to verify their results and write detailed scientific papers based on their findings.

Hydrologists spend much of their time in the field to conduct research.
Hydrologists spend much of their time in the field to conduct research.

Outside of research institutions, scientists may work for engineering firms, federal and state governments, and nonprofit environmental groups. Those who are employed by engineering and consulting firms ensure that buildings and industries do as little harm as possible to nearby water sources. They may be responsible for designing efficient, clean water systems for use within a company, or devising waste management programs that do not have negative impacts on the environment. Government and nonprofit hydrologists are often involved in conservation and awareness efforts, teaching people about the dangers of polluting water systems and wasting valuable water resources.

To become a hydrologist, a person must typically have at least a master's degree in hydrology, environmental science, or a related scientific discipline. Many government employees, university professors, and individuals who conduct independent research hold doctoral degrees. Additional licensing or certification is not typically required, though a hydrologist may choose to take a certifying exam administered by a nationally recognized organization, such as the American Institute of Hydrology in the United States.

Most new scientists begin their careers as field and laboratory assistants, learning about practical research techniques firsthand from experienced hydrologists. Assistants may be responsible for setting up experiments, entering data, and interpreting results. After a certain period of time working as an assistant, a hydrologist who proves his or her competency can begin designing new projects and conducting independent research.

A senior hydrologist may oversee a number of employees in a research facility.
A senior hydrologist may oversee a number of employees in a research facility.

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Discussion Comments


@burcinc-- The American Institute of Hydrology does play a huge role in this, mainly through certification.

I have an uncle who works with AIH and I know firsthand that the Institute cares greatly about public interest and they want to make sure that all the practices of American hydrologists are by the book.

We can't make a generalization that hydrologists who have a certificate from the AIH are the only dependable ones. That's not true because hydrology jobs are flexible and give lots of opportunities for independent research, study and work.

But if an organization or institution is concerned about things like bias, which I don't think is that common an occurrence, they can opt to work with a hydrologist who has an AIH certification and plenty of experience in the field.


@burcinc-- Yes, they must be ground water hydrologists or if they aren't, they must be supervised by one.

There are many different types of hydrologist careers, they're pretty specialized in their fields. There are ground water hydrologists, surface water hydrologists, hydrogeologists, so on and so forth.

One of the jobs of ground water hydrologists is to assess the quality of groundwater. I think that these hydrologists usually work with engineers and are employed by local or state governments. So there isn't a issue of ethics or bias there.


My family and I live pretty close to a factory and many homes here still use groundwater for watering their gardens and things like that. Periodically, we have a group come and take groundwater for testing. And then they announce the results and warn us if there is anything there that shouldn't be.

Are they hydrologists?

Are industries allowed to hire and use their own hydrologists to keep a check on pollutants that might be entering water?

Hydrologists have to be unbiased and keep public safety and health in mind. So they have to be working with organizations that deliver unbiased and honest research right? Is there an overarching institution in the US that oversees this? Does the American Institute of Hydrology have such a role?

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