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Environmental spotlight: Hydrology

  • Published
  • By 82nd Civil Engineer Squadron
  • Environmental Flight
Hydrology is the science dealing with the characteristic, distribution, and movement of water on and below the Earth's surface and in the atmosphere.

In the hydrologic analysis of a construction site there are number of variable factors that affect nature, for example drainage area size, slopes of terrain, stream channels, floodplains, estimation of water flow peaks, volumes, precipitation, and time distributions of storm water runoff. The analysis of these parameters is fundamental to the design of storm water management facilities, such as storm water drainage systems and structural storm water best management practices.

The water cycle, or hydrologic cycle, is a continuous process by which water is purified by evaporation and transported from the earth's surface (including the oceans) to the atmosphere and back to the land and oceans. All of the physical, chemical and biological processes involving water as it travels its various paths in the atmosphere, over and beneath the earth's surface and through growing plants, are of interest to those who study the hydrologic cycle.

There are many pathways water may take in its continuous cycle as rainfall or snowfall and returning to the atmosphere. It may be captured for millions of years in polar ice caps. It may flow to rivers and finally to the sea. It may soak into the soil to be evaporated directly from the soil surface as it dries or be transpired by growing plants. It may percolate through the soil to ground water reservoirs (aquifers) to be stored or it may flow to wells or springs or back to streams by seepage. They cycle for water may be short, or it may take millions of years.

People tap the water cycle for their own uses. Water is diverted temporarily from one part of the water cycle by pumping it from the ground or drawing it from a river or lake. It is used for a variety of activities such as households, businesses and industries; for irrigation of farms and parklands; and for production of electric power. After use, water is returned to another part of the cycle; perhaps discharged downstream or allowed to soak into the ground. Used water normally is lower in quality, even after treatment, which often poses a problem for downstream users. Hydrology studies the fundamental transport processes to be able to describe the quantity and quality of water as it moves through the cycle (evaporation, precipitation, stream flow, infiltration, ground water flow, and other components).

The engineering hydrologist, or water resources engineer, is involved in the planning, analysis, design, construction and operation of projects for the control, utilization, and management of water resources. Water resources problems are also the concern of meteorologists, oceanographers, geologists, chemists, physicists, biologists, economists, and political scientists, specialists in applied mathematics and computer science, and engineers in several fields.

Source: U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.