This is one of our guides on jobs in sustainable energy, food and water. Please see the others in our series:
Ask 10 different people what jobs you could get protecting water and you'll probably get 11 different titles that are as varied as our lakes and rivers. This is a good time for water-related jobs because our global population is growing and, let's face it, with all that growth comes impacts to water.
We all need clean, abundant water to survive - and we need people to ensure its protection and management. Unfortunately, with growing demands there will be competition for water between different large-scale users like farmers and power plants. But that competition will also bring job opportunities, from negotiating water leases to advocating for clean, safe water to dealing with polluted water sources. There is a place for everyone who wants to work in water, and at all levels. Read on and let's see if there's a place for you in the water protection biz.
A great way to learn about the intricacies of water - without years of education, albeit with plenty of hands-on training - is plumbing. Apprenticeships offer opportunities to learn the trade while working with a licensed plumber or an organization (such as a union) or school (which would offer both classroom and on-the-job settings). Plumbers' work can be as simple as changing the flapper in a toilet or as complex as creating major greywater projects. You'll learn all about water through an intimate connection with it, and you'll experience firsthand how you can change people's lives by giving them life's most basic necessity.
Water and sewer line construction
A lot of US infrastructure was built 75 to 100 years ago and is now in need of repair and replacement. This is especially true of water and sewer pipes, as evidenced by the large number of water and sewer main breaks the country experiences every day. Replacing those pipes will be of vital importance to keeping our water supplies safe (Just look at the Flint water crisis). Check with municipal water and sewer agencies to find out if towns and cities are replacing pipelines and if so, which contractors are doing that work, then check out those outfits to see if they're hiring.
Water and wastewater treatment plant operation
As an operator, you're responsible for ensuring the safety and quality of a community's water supply for both drinking and wastewater treatment. We can't think of many things that are more important. This job can involve a lot of independent work and collaboration as well as a lot of troubleshooting, and while you'll need a high school diploma, you won't necessarily need a college degree. You will need certification; then you'll learn on the job and through classroom training as you progress through certification levels. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that growth in this field will happen in the suburbs.
Farm irrigation and well drilling
Farmers increasingly rely on irrigation to grow their crops, especially as places around the country struggle through droughts that last for multiple growing seasons. In California, for example, well drilling teams currently can't keep up with the demand for new and deeper wells. If you really like to get your hands dirty, then a job on a water drill rig might be for you. Additionally, all those irrigation systems need people to install and maintain them in farms throughout the West and Midwest. This might take some technical know-how, but if you're so inclined, then it might be a field to look into. An online search produced jobs around the country in irrigation, from farms in California to a university in Florida. This type of job could definitely keep you outdoors and in touch with the elements.
Aquaculture is rapidly becoming the major source of fish on plates around the world and there are jobs to be found in aquaculture facilities. These aren't fishing jobs; they're really more akin to farming. The US is about to start permitting off-shore farms and, like other types of industrial farming, the facilities are controversial because of things like pollution and antibiotics use. You'll definitely want to do your research about the farm before you apply for a job because some types of fish farming - like aquaponics, which combines raising fish and plants together - can be more ecologically friendly than others. Jobs in aquaculture include farmers and farm hands (only in water) as well as government researchers and managers who provide the oversight of fish farms.
Hazardous waste site clean up
If the idea of putting on a Tyvek suit, trudging through toxic soup (TMNTs anyone?) and maintaining strict adherence to rules appeals to you, then you just might want to look into work on a hazardous waste site removal crew. Many of the tens of thousands of US Superfund sites have horrendous impacts on our waterways. In our opinion, this is truly heroic work because it involves entering precarious situations, sampling and handling unknown substances, then working with your team to remove, dispose of and possibly treat those substances, leaving the earth in much better shape afterward. Routine field workers need high school diplomas and some specialized training. Team and project managers mainly need college degrees. You can learn more about the process of hazardous waste site cleanup from the EPA.
Swim instructor and lifeguard
Don't discount some of the most hands-on jobs of all in the water field - teaching people to swim and being a lifeguard. These jobs turn you into water ambassadors; you're not only teaching people to be safe and use water responsibly, but just by virtue of the job you're also teaching them about the value of clean water. Who wants to swim in dirty water?
Media and Marketing
When we talk about "marketing" water, we're talking about promoting concepts like water protection, conservation and even water reuse, as opposed to say, increasing water sales. Unless you live in an area where your tap water isn't safe or potable, we advocate against bottled water and hope that you'll look for other ways to promote the wonders of water.
If you're wondering what to do with that communications or marketing degree you just received and you're a fan of water, why not look at jobs that promote water conservation and protection? Most cities and towns have communications offices and public works departments. Check out your city's job listings, and get involved with city activities so you understand what's going on around town that might impact your water and wastewater supply and treatment. The federal government has contact information for many cities and towns around the country, organized by state. It's a place to start if you want to find out what's going on in a particular town before you apply (Also, if you get an interview with a city or town, it's a smart idea to know what's going on with the municipality before you start answering their questions).
If you like to write, consider a career in environmental journalism. Most newspapers report on the environment and some even have an environmental desk. There are entire websites like Circle of Blue written by journalists and devoted to water. This is a great job if you enjoy freelance work; reporters who have regular beats are few and far between these days but you can influence a lot people with a good story.
Non-Profits and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
There are many non-profits and NGOs dedicated to protecting water; they range from foundations like GRACE, where we work to educate people about such topics as water footprints, to nonprofits like the American Water Works Association, which is dedicated to the management and treatment of water. AWWA even has a career center where you can find advice and job listings. Many non-profits need help shaping and getting their message out to the public. Effective marketing can make or break a campaign - that's where you potentially come in! (Authors note: I started out first in Geology, then in Civil/Environmental Engineering with a focus on water before I worked for a non-profit on water sustainability issues).
Traditional forms of marketing and advertising are definitely still used in the water field and they have their place, but if you know the ins and outs of the marketing world and you're a social media guru, you might have your pick of jobs if you're not tied to a location. Many organizations have turned to online tools, such as GRACE's own Water Footprint Calculator to educate the public about how important water is. It's a great way to put your love of water and your love of social media to good use.
Law and Policy
There's no question, water law in the US is complicated! Actually, "complicated" is an understatement if you live in the West, where the first ones who got to the water hold senior rights, regardless of whether or not they plan to actually use the water. Many lawyers have made entire careers out of untangling water rights legal messes, most of which end up being decided by judges. Best wishes to you if you pursue this pathway because the environment needs good lawyers who can help figure out equitable distribution of water for us all! Vermont Law School has a Water and Justice program that you might want to look into as a starting point. After graduation, you could work for a non-profit like NRDC, an organization with a long list of attorneys that focus on water issues.
Another area of water law concerns struggles with industrial polluters to hold them accountable for the messes they generate or to require them to install pollution prevention measures. This is how Riverkeeper got its start; since 1983 they've "investigated and brought to justice hundreds of environmental lawbreakers," in their efforts to "protect and restore the Hudson River, safeguard New York's drinking water and fight to replace the Indian Point nuclear power plant with safe renewable energy." (We think they're pretty cool people, too.)
Riverkeeper is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a collection of water protection groups that provide a voice for waterways and their communities worldwide. Marc Yaggi, a lawyer, is executive director. He's spent his career fighting for water protection and he's a good role model for anyone just getting started in the field.
Don't be afraid to think outside the [water] box because there might be a side door into working on water policy. For example, agricultural areas like farm fertilizer application and CAFO's both have water policy components, especially for organizations like Clean Water Action, because farm runoff dumps a lot of pollution in our waterways and there's a lot of work to be done on controlling this pollution.
Technology, Entrepreneurship and Consultants
What's that you say? You're really into water but your professional leanings are toward tech or more entrepreneurial endeavors? Not to worry because water needs you, too. There's so much pollution floating around in our waterways - everything from the trash you can see to the small cosmetic microbeads that you can't - that there will always be a need for new technologies to clean out the garbage, unless we make drastic changes to our consumption patterns (Check out the solar-powered water wheel that pulls trash out of Baltimore Harbor to see what one creative person is doing to clean the water by his office).
If you're a real tech-minded type you are a valuable asset to the water protection movement. That Water Footprint Calculator I mentioned above? It was made by a designer/programmer who has an interest in sustainability but an education in programming. In fact, all the web-based environmental tools you use were created by programmers and designers who are fortunate enough to work on projects that improve the environment. This could be you. Check out the first Water Hackathon to get some ideas.
Governments at all levels, from small communities to the federal level, often hire consultants to advise them on how to manage their water resources or to design and construct water projects like treatment systems and drainage infrastructure. These companies need all sorts of employees, from engineers and scientists to administration and PR people. The projects they work on can sometimes be politically unpopular so be sure you research a company's background before deciding to work for them. Columbia University's career office assembled a list of environmental consulting firms that can help you target a job search.
Because there is no "Department of Water" in the US, management and oversight of water resources is broken up amongst many government agencies. The agencies cover overlapping areas, so if you don't see the opening you're looking for in one agency you may find it in another.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
If you are interested in setting water policy or enforcing regulations, then the EPA might be the place for you. You'll have to pass a civil service exam, in addition to meeting their qualifications of education, experience or a combination of both. Working for the EPA can be rewarding, but is best suited for those who don't mind the vicissitudes of government bureaucracy.
There are also state, county and city environmental agencies and departments that provide similar and often more hands-on regulatory affairs work. The EPA collected a handy list of the state agencies.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
The BLM is a unique agency because they manage a number of the country's natural resources for a variety of uses - like western state water reservoirs that are used for drinking, irrigation and recreation. The jobs are interesting and complex and often involve a lot of public interaction.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
NOAA manages all things ocean, including fisheries and the waters they swim in. Their programs include marine sanctuaries, environmental satellites, global climate change, ocean exploration initiatives and climate, weather and water services. Technology plays a big part in NOAA's work, so this is a good place to merge those areas.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
The USDA typically addresses all things food, including agriculture, so the agency might not be the first to come to mind when you think about water jobs. But here's the thing, it takes a lot of water to grow and produce food, and some of the country's major growing regions have been going through some serious droughts over the past few years. Farmers have increasingly turned to irrigation and more efficient ways to deliver water to their crops. The USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture has been hard at work exploring issues at the food-water-energy nexus around the country, and it could be just the place for you if you have an interest in water and food.
United States Geological Survey (USGS)
Water is one of six areas that the USGS focuses on. The Water Division's mission is to collect and disseminate reliable, impartial and timely information needed to understand our country's water resources. They publish a lot of data, some of which we use at GRACE on a regular basis (you probably will too at some point in your career as a water professional). If you like big data then this could be the place for you.
United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)
The Army Corps is a driving force behind dams, bridges and flood control in the US. If you're working on a degree in civil engineering you should consider working for the Corps. The tide is slowly turning on the Corps' mission to dam and channelize every river in the country and they've embraced a new philosophy of dam removal, which is always good for aquatic ecosystems. You could become a valuable part of this effort.
United States Coast Guard (USCG)
If you really like being out on the water and are the type who likes adherence to rules and regulations, the Coast Guard might be for you. They look for smugglers (drugs, illegal goods and human trafficking), investigate maritime accidents and, most excitingly, help people in distress on the water. Those people you see pulling flood and storm victims into helicopters? They're usually with the Coast Guard. This is a great job for people who love being in and on the water, and you don't need a college degree to work for them, although you will have to take a vocational aptitude test.
If your interest lies more with fish than with the water they swim in (healthy water = healthy fish) check out this extensive list of agencies that deal with endangered fish species.
If you want to work directly for water protection, conservation and justice then consider water advocacy. There are many, many water advocacy groups and even if the group you've had your eye on isn't hiring right now, look around because there may be a similar group that is. Check out the EPA's Surf Your Watershed to find out who's doing work in the watershed where you live. Once you've found organizations doing the kind of work you're interested in, read up on them and attend their events, like beach clean ups, film screenings and panel discussions. You'll quickly learn who's who for when it's time to hand someone your resume.
In addition, if you're willing to relocate and travel, you can combine your passion for water protection with some pretty cool adventures, because water advocacy groups are all around the world. You'll help your chances of going on foreign adventures if you speak multiple languages.
Teaching and University Research
My own career path started in geology, but I quickly turned to work in civil and environmental engineering after taking a couple of water-related classes with professors who were very influential and really liked teaching about water.
Given that appreciation, I hope anyone with an ability to make complex topics like chemical processes in water understandable to a lot of people will consider teaching, at any level! Jay Famiglietti is just such a professor who is leading a team of graduate students at the University of Califrnia, Irvine in some pretty exciting research studying groundwater depletion using data from NASA satellites. That research is helping shape groundwater policy in California as the state works its way through a severe, statewide drought.
More importantly, I hope that K-12 teachers who are good at science and math consider teaching kids about the environment. We have no choice but to rely on the next generation to fix the problems we've made in the environment. If kids understand what those messes are all about, hopefully they will be less tolerant of contributing to them in the future. Maggie Belizaire does this in New York City and she's really making a difference with at-risk kids who end up learning a lot about the environment.
Finally, if you're in a field that has seemingly nothing to do with water - accounting, human relations or coding - and you always thought you'd like to work on water protection, you could do the same kind of work only in a water-related organization or agency, because all of those places need your skills. We all have to keep the doors open and the lights running, and what a terrific way to make your contribution and get a paycheck in the field you trained for.
Finding a Job
Look at the job postings on city websites and sooner or later you'll find jobs that involve city water services. Most of the government agency links above go to career sites, so check those out. If you're more interested in bringing water to people who lack it, then check out Charity: Water's postings.
If you're looking for advocacy jobs, check out Idealist. You can search for jobs, internships and volunteer opportunities by category and location. Keep in mind that you can often work your way into jobs through those internships and volunteer positions. This path takes time and patience and is a great way to network; keep the long game in mind to make it work. Also, consider temporary or freelance work if you know that a particular organization needs someone in your field but can't hire on a full-time basis.
In your water job search, be open to thinking outside the box. Water is pervasive and finds its way into the smallest of openings. Take a lesson from that as you're conducting your job search and you'll eventually swim in the balmy waters of employment doing what you love. Look for more professional inspiration by checking out some of Our Heroes on Ecocentric!
This post was originally published in December 2014