Most of us remember the simplified version of the water cycle we are taught in elementary school in which water from the ocean is heated and evaporated by radiation from the sun, transported over land where is cools and condenses to fall as precipitation before returning to the oceans via runoff. It is a tidy and easy to picture version of water transport, but it leaves out one important piece of the water puzzle, the time water spends in residence in the cracks and pore spaces of the ground. In fact, much of the Earth's water will spend thousands of years or longer under the ground surface, often only emerging after excavation or pumping. That water is termed groundwater and it exists as a vast freshwater ocean that underlies the ground at varying depths. Groundwater is of particular environmental importance because it is both essential for life processes and a finite resource. It is the primary source of water for areas that lack municipal sources or adequate surface water for their populations. It is also the primary source of irrigation water for agriculture in many regions of the United States.
It is estimated that 30 percent of all freshwater on the planet is held underground as groundwater, and there is big business in finding, accessing, and protecting it.
Groundwater issues are a part of many jobs related to environmental advocacy, conservation, development, and engineering. Many jobs related to groundwater offer opportunities for field work, and the integration of other skills-sets, for example, many environmental groundwater specialists also work in wetlands delineation and surface water fields.
Most careers related to groundwater require a bachelor's degree in geology, hydrology, or related field though many field positions such as drillers and surveyors can be entered into without even a four-year degree, though additional training and certifications may be required. Many supervisory and project-management jobs related to groundwater require an advanced degree in a related field.
The primary jobs sector related to groundwater is the appropriate siting, installation and maintenance for residential, commercial, and industrial wells. These are field-based jobs that require training and apprenticeship and often the oversight of a Professional Engineer or Registered Geologist.
As climate change increases the duration and severity of drought and population places more demand on municipal water systems, demand for predictive computer models of groundwater sources, levels, and accessibility is increasing. Jobs in this field require computer programming skills and often combine field work and data collection with programming and report generation.
It's not just water that makes its way into the subsurface, industrial and agricultural waste streams, leaking underground storage tanks, spills, and every everyday household chemical use all contribute to groundwater contamination. This field combines the field skills of drilling with the science of predictive modeling to determine the nature and extent of subsurface water contamination and the best course of remediation to resolve the problem. There are a wide variety of careers in this field, from entry level field technician to supervisory Geologist, some requiring little more than a strong back and others looking for candidates with advanced degrees in a related field.