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 June 4, 2012
Working with Water: Hydrologic Sciences and Policy Majors at UCSB Learn to Solve Pressing Environmental Problems
By Lauren Schiffman

 In the field: Students in Coastal Processes and Management take measurements.
Photo: Ed Keller
Our future is tied to the future of water. To survive, we need clean water to drink and grow our food. We need water for washing, to generate power, and to provide habitat for wildlife. The problem is that the amount of water on the earth is fixed, and as water becomes polluted, we have less of it we can use. Climate change also brings challenges to managing water use. As the climate changes, some areas will get less rain, while others will see more flooding.

Figuring out how the growing population will have the water it needs will be "a huge environmental problem for the twenty-first century," says Ed Keller, a professor of environmental studies and geology at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). And the people who will be solving this issue are hydrologists. Hydrology is the study of water in all its forms: as weather in the atmosphere, as bodies of water on land such as lakes and rivers, and as groundwater stored under the earth's surface in reservoirs.

Students who want to get involved in this important area of study have several options. Undergraduates can get a background in engineering, environmental science, math, or an area of the physical sciences, for example, and go on to study hydrology as graduate students. In some colleges, undergraduate students in areas such as atmospheric science, civil engineering, earth science, or environmental science can choose a minor or a concentration in hydrology. For undergraduates who are ready to focus on hydrology, however, a handful of colleges offer a bachelor's degree in the field.
Hydrologic sciences students examine water in all its forms so they can learn how to solve complex environmental issues.

Several of these programs are located in states where water is scarce. For example, in California, UCSB offers a B.S. degree in hydrologic sciences and policy. The school offers the degree as part of its Environmental Studies Program. But because studying water involves biology, chemistry, and the physical sciences, the departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology; Earth Science; and Geography jointly offer courses for the major.

To prepare for advanced classes in hydrology, freshmen and sophomores take a number of courses in math, biology, chemistry, physics, and more. Juniors and seniors examine the hydrologic cycle -- how water falls to the ground as precipitation such as rain and snow, interacts with land, and evaporates back into the atmosphere. Students in Environmental Hydrology, for example, explore how precipitation interacts with land as it runs into waterways, floods land, or filters into the ground. Students also learn about groundwater and rivers and the pollutants that may affect them. As part of the program's focus on policy, students must take Water Policy in the West, a class that explores how the science of water systems links to economics and laws.

 Coastal campus: The Pacific Ocean borders the UCSB campus.
Photo: Tony Mastres

One of the strengths of the major, according to Keller, is that it provides both intense scientific training and a background in policy, so students develop a broad understanding of the field. Students do get a chance to specialize, though, and must choose an emphasis in either biology and ecology, physical and chemical sciences, or policy. This gives juniors and seniors a chance to focus on an area of interest and prepare for certain jobs or areas of graduate study.

Those who focus on biology and ecology can explore topics such as environmental processes in marine habitats and learn to do things like restore damaged rivers. Students who choose an emphasis in physical and chemical sciences can learn about soil science, for example, and focus on the study of groundwater -- also known as hydrogeology. Those with an emphasis on policy focus on the practical aspects of solving water problems and examine the legal, economic, and management issues related to the field.

No matter which area they focus on, students in the program are encouraged to get hands-on experience in the lab, the field, and the workplace. In a required Groundwater Hydrology course, for instance, students measure and analyze groundwater in the lab and in the field and perform computer analyses. In Advanced Study of Water Policy, students work in the field for about two weeks to study water systems in areas like Yosemite National Park and Mono Lake. Students who are interested in coastal waters can head next door to check out the Pacific Ocean.

Students can also receive course credit for completing an internship, conducting independent research, working as a research assistant, or writing a senior thesis. The program has an internship coordinator and a large internship database. It also maintains relationships with several field studies and research programs to help students find opportunities.

All this training turns out graduates who are "well prepared for graduate school or working in a variety of settings," says Keller. He adds that hydrologists have "many professional opportunities." But most important, the program equips graduates with the tools they need to solve some of today's most complex environmental issues.

More Info
University website: University of California, Santa Barbara
Program website: Environmental Studies
Admission: Admissions
Financial aid: Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships

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