Hydrologists study the dynamic nature of water, for example, the forces that cause water to move in the environment and what effects this movement has. They examine issues such as precipitation pathways, the relationship between rainfall and runoff, and the effects of precipitation on soils and various landscapes. They are also involved in projects to determine and promote sustainable usage of water sources to conserve supplies. Hydrologists play a critical role in protecting Canada’s water resources.

Entry-Level Salary:
Senior-Level Salary:

At a Glance

Imagine you are standing in a new, exclusive residential development high on a ridge overlooking the river valley. You are a hydrologist for an environmental consulting firm that has been hired by the City to study the impact of residential development on the local environment. With the success of this community, dozens of developers have approached the City for permits to build more houses along the ridge. Before the City approves more buildings in the area, it wants to make certain this community isn't negatively affecting the environment, particularly the river's water quality.

The City has hired your firm's team of geologists, biologists, toxicologists, and hydrologists. As the team's lead hydrologist, you will be responsible for monitoring and evaluating water quality around the area to detect any changes that might be a result of this new community. As a hydrologist, you specialize in the physical, biological, and chemical characteristics of water. How urbanization affects water resources, is one of your particular interests, making this project very exciting.

First, you identify issues that might arise from a residential development, for example, contamination in surface runoff. The houses along the ridge all have yards that slope toward the valley, so when it rains, excess rainwater flows into the river. As part of your study, you will collect samples of the surface runoff to analyze water quality. You're concerned that the runoff might pick up hazardous chemicals from the development and carry them into the river. For example, each lot has a well-tended backyard, which often means the lawns and flowerbeds are treated with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

These chemicals can be picked up by rainwater and carried in the runoff to the river. Area homeowners also use the river for recreation, so the river will be monitored carefully to make certain rafters, swimmers, and sport fishers aren't negatively affecting water quality. Your evaluation of the development's impact on area water quality will be a significant part of the team's report to the City and will help planners make wise decisions with respect to further residential development.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as a hydrologist:

  • Monitor water supply and usage.
  • Contribute to the planning of water resource development by forecasting and monitoring water usage and precipitation levels.
  • Use computer models to determine the most effective ways of managing available water in particular areas.
  • Analyze the effects of environmental and land-use changes on water flow.
  • Respond to water flow situations, for example, droughts and floods, and evaluate different methods to address issues.
  • Measure water levels and collect ground and surface water samples.
  • Ensure water quality is monitored and concerns are being met.
  • Conduct climate impact studies with respect to various hydrological applications.
  • Coordinate and supervise the work of technicians, technologists, and students.
  • Prepare technical reports and studies.

Work Environment

Hydrologists work in a variety of locations, including:

In the field:

  • Collecting samples and recording data
  • Setting up meteorological and hydrological stations
  • Conducting field experiments

In the office:

  • Analyzing data and preparing reports
  • Interpreting hydrological data
  • Creating and utilizing computer models
  • Conducting research and designing experiments
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, colleagues, government departments, and the public

In the lab:

  • Processing and analyzing samples
  • Conducting bench experiments

Where to Work

There are a number of places hydrologists can find employment. They include:

  • Environmental and engineering consulting firms
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as a hydrologist, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Computer Science

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as a hydrologist is a university undergraduate degree. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as a hydrologist, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Aquaculture
  • Environmental Science
  • Geology
  • Hydrology
  • Marine Biology
  • Soil Science
  • Terrain and Water
  • Water Resources

It is not mandatory to be certified in order to work as a hydrologist.



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Role Models

Kristin Hanson

I was attracted to the science of hydrology because it combines many disciplines and allows me to meet practical goals. It isn’t realistic to expect I can save the entire world, however, each project I accomplish helps improve a small part of the world. The best advice I ever received was to gain experience in a variety of areas and types of projects. This allowed me to challenge myself. I started out as a research assistant and then returned to school for graduate work before progressing into more senior roles.

I have accumulated 12 years of diverse experience in planning, executing and managing environmental audits, conducting site investigations and remediating contaminated sites. My experience includes everything from collecting samples in the field to giving technical presentations and training to clients. Types of organizations that might hire hydrologists include consulting companies, municipal planning/public works departments, government regulatory agencies and industrial companies.

Jobs are most commonly found in urban centers. Things are constantly changing and I read journals and take short courses regularly. I also learn from my experiences managing diverse projects, and from interacting with the other talented professionals in my company. I am a member of the National Groundwater Association, the Association of Professional Geoscientists of Ontario and the Canadian Geotechnical Society. The industry needs talent. I predict that salaries will continue to go up as skilled professionals and the advice that they provide to the industry become more sought after.

Corporately, industries will begin to see environmental needs as something to be planned and addressed in a preventative way, rather than in a reactionary way. Air is a fast-growing area right now. Pharmaceuticals are a new contaminant being investigated. As we learn more about our environment and human health, things will continue to change rapidly. I recommend a strong background in geology and chemistry for entering this type of work. There is such diversity in this profession that you can choose the opportunity you want to match your lifestyle.

It is important to manage all aspects of your life. Don’t let your personal life slip so that you work all the time. You have to achieve a balance. I have many projects on the go and typically work 40-60 hours/wk, mostly in the office. My work doesn’t have typical 9-5 hours. The day isn’t over until deadlines are met and reports are delivered. I never find the work boring and have different challenges each day. I manage projects, staff, schedules, clients and data, review reports and provide input to the work of others.

I am constantly juggling priorities to meet the client’s expectations. I interact with clients, engineers and lawyers who have different areas of knowledge and expertise. It is important that I can communicate effectively and explain technical information in a non-technical way. My greatest work accomplishment so far has been remediation of a hazardous waste site in a residential neighborhood. This project was special because I was able to use existing laws to get the waste de-listed from hazardous to non-hazardous, which allowed my client to get the work done sooner. This ability to bridge the gap between the environment and environmental law is a unique contribution that gives me a sense of satisfaction.