Many regions of the United States are experiencing extreme drought conditions. Teachers of future STEM professionals can encourage solution development through hydrology.

Drought-stricken California is in its fifth year of extreme water deprivation, and even usually balmy and humid Florida is now boasting dangerous drought conditions. Though residents are complying with water-usage restrictions, major shortages remain. What STEM solutions lie in hydrology? The hydrology branch of earth science – according to the U.S. Geological Survey – examines properties, frequency, and movement of Earth’s water, and its role in the environment.

STEM Jobs discussed the growing drought crisis – and vital solutions-focused roles of STEM professionals – with Dr. Wendy Graham, Program Director, Hydrologic Sciences at the National Science Foundation, who is on temporary leave from her position as the director of the University of Florida Water Institute.

From hydrological and educational perspectives, what is the greatest issue affecting the United States’ drought crisis?
Crisis results from a combination of climate variability/change, increasing/shifting  populations, and the expectation that humans can live wherever they choose and still use as much water as they desire. These factors increase domestic, agricultural, and industrial demand for water while water supply becomes more variable and less predictable.

What solutions have experts been exploring?

1. Demand management/water conservation through improved irrigation efficiency (both agricultural and urban/suburban), increased water use efficiency of indoor appliances, new water use regulations (particularly on landscape irrigation), changes in water pricing strategies, and education.
2. Wastewater reuse for cooling, suburban landscape irrigation, agricultural irrigation, and direct potable reuse.
3. New energy-efficient treatment processes to promote uses of  lower-quality water  (i.e., desalination, reverse osmosis, etc. for wastewater reuse, brackish water, salt water).
4. New or improved ways to provide inter-annual storage of water, e.g., aquifer storage and recovery, methods of reducing evaporation from surface reservoirs.
5. Social science research to improve the “water-use ethic” of society.


Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Will a shift occur in the future environmental and water-conservation focus of hydrology?

The issue of providing ample high-quality water for both humans and natural ecosystems will become an increasing challenge. Impact of urban and agricultural systems on water quality and subsequent impacts on natural ecosystems will continue to increase in importance. Balancing economic growth with environmental protection will require innovation and behavior change. Managing the “food-water-energy-environment” nexus as the global population approaches 9 billion people will become a focus.

How can students or interns prepare for these changes?

Master the basics, remain curious, and then become independent learners. The solutions to these problems will not come from a textbook, they will require continuous innovation.

How can teachers encourage students to consider hydrology careers?

Incorporate real and virtual field trips into science classes, bring in speakers from NGOs, and water-management agencies into classroom. Emphasize the  social need for, and challenge of, providing ample high quality water for people, agricultural use, and natural ecosystems. Appeal to their need/desire to “make a difference.”

What inspired you to pursue this path?

My love of the outdoors along with concern for the environment. Growing up on an island where water was extremely scarce helped me to understand the importance of water.


Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Which STEM subjects should hydrology-focused students study in junior high and high school?

Environmental science, earth science, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, calculus, psychology/behavioral science.

How would you encourage higher education students to get involved?

Seek out paid internships/co-op experiences and/or volunteer experiences during your undergraduate program to make professional contacts and gain experience. It is as important to identify things that you don’t want to do as much as things that you do want to do. Participate in pre-professional societies.

Inspire students to discover hydrology STEM jobs by examining how the Navy converted water into fuel and share our “5 STEM Careers that Don’t Exist Yet,” such as this water-conservation role.

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