Hydrologist Career Profiles

The following profiles are intended to give short descriptions of the types of roles hydrologists fulfil in society, the types of organisations and companies who employ them and the range of activities and responsibilities they undertake. The descriptions are not exhaustive and should be regarded as a guide only. The information provided here is primarily aimed at undergraduates, postgraduates and those seeking a change of direction in their current career.

Water Resources Planning and Demand Forecasting

The skills of a hydrologist are highly relevant to the issue of balancing water supply and water demand. In the UK, individuals with hydrological knowledge can work for water companies or their environmental regulators (the Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) or Rivers Agency) in the roles of water resource planners and demand forecasters.

As a water resources planner/demand forecaster you can become involved in establishing the yield of existing surface water and groundwater sources, assessing the effects and risks associated with the failure of water supply systems and assessing the potential impact of climate change on water supply and demand. You may also be asked to plan and agree investigations into proposed water resources schemes and evaluate the relative costs of such schemes (e.g. as part of the Asset Management Plan (AMP) cycle). Your advice may be sought during mains distribution improvements to enhance the security of water supply and reduce leakage from treatment works and pipelines. Day to day activities may also entail producing and agreeing operational control rules for water resources (to allow for e.g. conjunctive use of sources or river regulation), supervising and monitoring the use of water resources (in accordance with their licensing and operational control rules) for water supply purposes and environmental benefits and collating/analysing information on domestic, industrial and agricultural water consumption. Periodically, you will be involved in planning, agreeing and instigating actions to be taken at the onset of, during and after a drought period.


Most hydrological investigations rely on the availability of observed hydrometric data. Depending on the level at which the investigation is pitched e.g. strategic, pre-feasibility or full ‘design and build’ standard, the underlying data requirements and, specifically, the need for accurate records can become quite significant. As a field hydrologist you can play a direct role in the provision of high quality datasets for hydrological modelling. Typical tasks undertaken in the field by hydrologists working for or on behalf of the Environment Agency, SEPA or Rivers Agency include: inspection and maintenance of existing gauging structures and measuring devices for surface water, groundwater, rainfall and climatic variables; reviewing the need for (and potential locations of) new gauging structures or devices; supervising the installation of new measuring equipment; calibration of hydrometric instruments (e.g. water level recorders); and retrieval and quality control of hydrometric data. When necessary (usually during a major flood event), you may be asked to undertake current-meter gaugings to assist the development, extrapolation and verification of rating curves (stage-discharge relationships) at significant locations within a catchment. Linked to this, you may also partake in site visits during and in the aftermath of flood events to ascertain and monitor peak levels, flood extents and property damage (see also Flood Forecasting, Flood Warning and Flood Defence).

UK Consultancy

A UK-based consultant hydrologist, working either independently or for a consultancy firm needs to be flexible, mobile and accustomed to a diverse workload. Depending on the nature of the commission, you may be working alone or as part of a large multi-disciplinary project team, your technical input may be short or extensive and you may be called upon to work on site or on secondment to a client’s office. In this respect it is important that you develop an ability to exercise clear hydrological judgement (see also International Consultancy), a willingness to explore different avenues in the quest for reliable data and a flare for effective communication.

In this varied role you can gain technical expertise in the following areas: low flow investigations as a precursor to ALF (Alleviation of Low Flows) schemes, habitat restoration schemes or in connection with discharge consents and water quality issues; basin level studies (e.g. Catchment Flood Management Plans) aimed at finding strategic and sustainable solutions to current flooding problems, whilst also managing the risk of potential flooding in the future; flood risk assessments for private developers or local authorities - as part of the development control process or during urban drainage/sewerage network design; and reservoir safety work, usually involving an estimation of the probable maximum flood for the subject catchment. Input into the design and construction of hydrometric gauging stations will present you with fieldwork opportunities and involve liaison with contractors, land owners and the responsible environmental agency. There is also scope for you to link hydrological modelling with hydraulic modelling (e.g. during flood risk mapping work for the Environment Agency) to assess the impact of design floods at key locations and to provide an indication of the spatial extent of a flood with a given probability of occurrence in any one year. Your skills may be utilised during technical and project management support to the Environment Agency in its role as auditor of water companies’ Water Resources Plans; or in evaluating the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits of potential water resources options or flood defence schemes.

International Consultancy

For those with an interest in seeing other countries and ways of life whilst broadening their hydrological experience, overseas hydrology is an exciting opportunity. The humid tropics, arid deserts, steppes and regions snow-bound half the year have very different critical hydrological regimes. It sometimes means being prepared to go back to hydrological basics, foregoing user- friendly manuals and UK methodologies, often dealing with limited or short-term datasets and, in many cases, plunging into entirely different hydrological environments.

As an overseas hydrologist working for an international consultancy firm (or as an independent consultant) you will need to be confident, resourceful and able to tackle all aspects of hydrology - from appraising gauging stations, data quality and locally derived methodologies to defining regional characteristics and demonstrating the impact of potential water resource schemes. Usually, a significant degree of training of counterparts will be involved and here the ability to pick up local languages will be a distinct advantage. Being a local presence with a perceived expertise, you can expect to be called upon during emergencies (see also International Development and Emergency Relief) – e.g. floods, droughts, crop failures or pollution spills. An open mind is essential, together with diplomacy and respect for local methods developed through experience or rules of thumb. Though such an approach may seem unscientific or far removed from ‘textbook’ methods in use in the UK, it can be important to take note of local expertise and utilise it, wherever possible, in the eventual solution to a particular issue.

As the world becomes more hydrologically aware, there is great scope for practising your hydrological skills at the high-tech end of the spectrum or at a more basic level. The former may involve developing leading-edge modelling techniques for the management of extensive river basins, whilst the latter may evoke pragmatic measures to enable communities to withstand monsoon or snow seasons, the occasional power or water supply disruption, and even the possibility of political upheaval.

International Development and Emergency Relief

As a hydrologist, you can gain experience in water engineering including such topics as: water quality sampling, designing small water distribution systems, designing rainfall harvesting schemes and siting shallow wells for local communities. Such skills are very valuable when working in developing countries or during emergency relief work. Hydrologists with these (and other) appropriate skills can make effective water supply and sanitation engineers – referred to as ‘Watsans’ by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) – when emergency relief is required and, particularly, during longer term development projects (see also International Consultancy). Organisations such as RedR (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief) have a number of members with hydrological backgrounds who undertake international aid assignments. For further information see the RedR website at: www.redr.org

Education, Research and Development

For those hydrologists who continue in academia, opportunities exist in the form of college or university lectureships (e.g. within Civil Engineering, Geography or Earth Sciences departments) and, in the UK, as part of research teams based at specialist establishments such as the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH, Wallingford), the Meteorological Office, Flood Hazard Research Centre (FHRC) or the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Collaborative working, both in the UK and overseas, is a key feature of the research hydrologist’s career. In choosing this route, you would be expected to share knowledge and ideas amongst your colleagues and, as appropriate, with external organisations. Your advice/opinions might be sought when key decisions need to be made (e.g. at local or national government level) or when an innovative solution to a long-standing problem needs to be found. Hydrologists employed by educational and research establishments often work with representatives from government departments, consultancy firms and industrial or commercial companies worldwide. They are challenged with extending the boundaries of the current level of understanding of hydrological processes and taking the lead in providing new or updated methodologies, modelling techniques and tools with which other hydrologists should work. Most hydrologists entering this field of employment will have an appropriate postgraduate degree.

Flood Forecasting, Flood Warning and Flood Defence

The hydrological skills of, for example, Environment Agency flood warning officers and flood defence engineers are utilised in planning and agreeing actions to be taken at the onset, during and after a flood – these actions may feed into major incident plans managed by local authorities for key urban areas.

Hydrologists who specialise in flood forecasting often work with real-time models of river systems, linked to weather radar and/or telemetered raingauges and river gauges. Such models are often used to issue short-term flood warnings to communities in affected areas; the models can also be used operationally to determine policies for releasing water from regulating reservoirs. In these circumstances, hydrologists are responsible for monitoring hydrometric information and issuing flood warnings to the public, emergency services and businesses as the need arises. Their role requires rapid expert judgement, a sound knowledge of local hydrological regimes and an appreciation of historical trends or observed responses within a given catchment.

Flood defence engineers become involved in the ‘operations’ side of managing a flooding incident, in terms of acting on issued warnings and instigating mitigation measures or assisting with evacuation ‘on the ground’. In this type of role, you would be expected to interact with local authorities, the public and emergency services, and perhaps provide statements to the media on the flooding situation. It may be your responsibility to co-ordinate the activities of teams working to alleviate flooding problems in disparate parts of a catchment. On a day to day basis flood defence engineers play a significant role in the implementation of improvements to flood defence assets (e.g. embankments, diversion channels and flood storage areas). They also act as a link with local flood defence committees.

In all cases, the hydrologist who plays a part in predicting or managing a flood event, is keen to learn lessons that will help to improve understanding and reactions should the situation recur. The data collected and analysed by hydrologists during and after a flood can help to improve predictive models and influence emergency planning. It can also be used to enhance public awareness of flood risk and promote self-help activities.