Water is one of the most versatile of all chemicals. It comprises about 75% of the Earth’s surface and is an integral part of every ecosystem—we drink it, play in it, and use it in a wide variety of manufacturing processes. Water chemists study the impact of water on other elements in these systems and vice versa. Water chemists also contribute to the design and implementation of processes and policies to manage areas of impact.
Hydrology is the study of the movement, distribution, and quality of water on Earth and other planets, including the hydrologic cycle, water resources and environmental watershed sustainability. A practitioner of hydrology is a hydrologist, working within the fields of earth or environmental science, physical geography, geology, or civil and environmental engineering.
Chemists in this field can work as bench chemists or data review chemists and can be in government or with private sector environmental management companies.
Water chemists undertake a variety of responsibilities. Their titles vary as well—some of which reflect the interplay of disciplines, as in hydrologists, hydrogeologists, and hydrobiogeochemists. Additional titles include water purification chemist, wastewater treatment plant chemist, surface water chemist, and groundwater chemist. Water chemists often use their specific knowledge about water for applications that affect entire ecosystems.
Because this field is highly interdisciplinary, it is important to be conversant in a range of disciplines including microbiology, geology, aqueous geochemistry, geochemical kinetics, hydrogeology, and microbial ecology, among many others. Lab experience and as much hands-on experience as possible is vital. Students interested in this area should take as many courses as possible in environmental policy to supplement their technical expertise and understand how the data they collect affects into public policy. A career in water chemistry or hydrology may require an advanced degree (master’s or Ph.D.), and currently a small number of schools offer such programs.
Geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, and global positioning system (GPS) equipment can be used for some types of monitoring, so experience with computer modeling, data analysis, and digital mapping is desirable.
Some states require hydrologists to obtain a license to practice, which generally requires certain education, experience, and successful completion of an exam.
Most positions include fieldwork, other than industrial water chemists who spend the majority of their time in the lab. Work hours may be nine to five but can extend into the night and weekends when projects require. The flexibility to travel overseas is important in some industries, as chemists may be asked to interact with business managers as well as provide expertise and service at customer sites.
Opportunities exist in the water treatment industry, which is quite substantial since most manufacturing companies use water as part of their production or cooling processes. Government positions for water chemists include those at the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey. In academia, water chemists are teachers and researchers. Environmental management firms employ water chemists for consulting and remediation projects.
Median annual wage: $120,160 (2015)
Depending on educational level, water chemists generally start out working in the field or at the bench. As they progress in their career, they may take on more responsibility for higher profile and more complex projects or may supervise more people.
Despite strong environmental consciousness and concerns about water purity in the United States, staff reductions in industry have resulted in a very competitive job market. Environmental consulting firms may have more openings than other areas. For those willing to live overseas, industrial opportunities exist in developing countries that need to build water treatment facilities. As the population grows and expands into new areas, the need for water chemists and hydrologists to ensure adequate water quality is expected to grow.
Water chemists often express a personal interest in, and a commitment to, the environment that goes beyond their scientific work. Chemists in industry say they enjoy doing work that safeguards water quality and that solves complex problems. Water chemists often describe themselves as very practical people with good analytical skills. They underscore the importance of being objective scientists.