Ask 10 different people what jobs are available in water protection and they’ll give probably give 11 different titles that are as varied as the country’s lakes and rivers. This is a good time to work in water protection because the global population is growing and, let’s face it, with all that growth comes impacts to water.
Everyone needs clean, abundant water to survive – and people are needed to ensure water’s 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 on-going 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
Operators are 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. While you’ll need a high school diploma, you won’t necessarily need a college degree, although the Bureau of Labor Statistics says that job prospects will be best for those with training or higher education in water or wastewater systems and good mechanical skills. You will need certification, but then you’ll learn on the job and through classroom training as you progress through certification levels.
Onsite Septic System Operation
Those residences and businesses that aren’t hooked up to wastewater treatment systems typically deal with waste through septic systems. There is a lot of work to be found in maintaining and upgrading these systems to keep them from polluting aquifers and public water ways. This is a subject area that could use innovative thinkers, and if that’s you, you could potentially make a major contribution to water quality.
Farm Irrigation and Well Drilling
Farmers increasingly rely on irrigation to grow their crops, especially as different places around the country struggle through droughts that last for multiple growing seasons. During the 2014 drought in California, for example, well drilling teams had trouble keeping 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 United States. This requires some technical know-how, especially with automation and efficient forms of irrigation, but if you’re so inclined then it’s a field to explore. A job search can produce jobs anywhere in the country, from California to Florida, and this type of job could definitely keep you outdoors and in touch with the elements.
Aquaculture is rapidly becoming a 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 more akin to farming. Jobs in aquaculture (and aquaponics) which includes both finfish and shellfish, takes farmers and farm hands (in water rather than soil) as well as government researchers and managers who provide the oversight of fish farms. The US is slowly 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 want to do your research about the farm before you apply for a job. Some types of fish farming – like aquaponics, which combines raising fish and plants together – can be more ecologically friendly than others.
Shellfish are an important part of aquatic habitats because, in addition to being a food source for both human and non-human eaters, they have a tremendous impact on water quality because they filter out contaminants. Populations have declined because of things like development and habitat loss, but there are major efforts underway in coastal communities to revive shellfish populations. This takes “hands-on” into the water and is the ultimate feel-good job.
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. 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 generally 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, you’re also teaching them about the value of clean 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 climate and the environment and some even have an environmental desk. There are even news websites devoted to water and written by journalists, like Circle of Blue. 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 topics like 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. Look into the groups that traditionally have worked on water issues, like The Nature Conservancy, Food and Water Watch, Pacific Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Traditional forms of marketing and advertising are definitely still used in the water field and they have their place, but if you’re a social media guru, you might have your pick of jobs if you’re not tied to a location. Many organizations have websites and online tools (don’t forget to check out GRACE’s own Water Footprint Calculator) that educate the public about the importance of water and they all need promotion. This is 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 people who got to the water hold senior rights, regardless of whether or not someone downstream might need it more. Many lawyers have made entire careers out of untangling water rights legal messes, most of which end up being decided by judges. 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.” Riverkeeper is part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a worldwide collection of water protection groups that provide a voice for waterways and their communities worldwide.
Don’t be afraid to think outside the [water] box because there might be a side door into working on water policy. For example, in agriculture, crop and livestock farming have water policy components, especially for organizations like Friends of the Earth, 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 pieces of trash big enough for you to see to the small microbeads (from cosmetics) that you can’t see – 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 wheels that pull trash out of Baltimore Harbor).
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 designers and programmers who have an interest in sustainability. 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. Plus, there is an ever-expanding amount of data that will have to analyzed and visualized (read about how data and water go together). This could be you. Check out the EPA’s Blueprint for integrating technology into the National Water Program and consider working with universities like Stonybrook to help them advance clean water technology innovations.
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. You’ll want to be sure you don’t have any ethical conflicts with the projects they work on, so be sure you research a company’s background before deciding to work for them. Here is ENR’s 2017 list of the top 100 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 among many government agencies and they cover overlapping areas, so if you don’t see the opening you’re looking for in one agency you may find it in another.
Working for the government can be rewarding, but is best suited for those who don’t mind the vicissitudes of government bureaucracy and changing administrations.
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. 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 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 the fish 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 covers food and agriculture, so the agency might not be the first to come to mind when you think about water jobs. But it takes a lot of water to grow and produce food, and some of the country’s major growing regions periodically go through some serious droughts. 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, which we use at GRACE on a regular basis (and you probably will too at some point in your career as a water professional). If you like big data then the USGS 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 it’s 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 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.
Government Agencies That Manage Fish
If your interest lies more with fish than with the water they swim in (healthy water = healthy fish) check out this 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 website 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. Beach clean-ups, film screenings and panel discussions are great opportunities to introduce yourself. You’ll learn quickly who’s who and be prepared 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
The world has no choice but to rely on the next generation to fix the problems in the environment our generation has made. Anyone with an ability to make the complexities of water understandable to a wide audience really should consider teaching, at any level. We like to see K-12 teachers who are good at science and math also teach kids about the environment, because once kids understand what those messes are all about, they will (hopefully) be less tolerant of contributing to them in the future. Also, universities lie at the heart of innovation in the US. If you have innovative ideas for water treatment and protection, a university could be the conduit for turning those ideas into reality.
Finally, if you’re in a field that has seemingly nothing to do with water, for example, accounting or human resources, and you always thought you’d like to work on water protection, you could do the same kind of work in a water-related organization or agency. All of those places need your skills, because all the companies 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 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 or Josh’s Water Jobs for international development listings.
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.
Water is pervasive and finds its way into the smallest of openings. Take your cue from water as you’re conducting your job search and be open to thinking outside the box to find the smallest openings. Eventually, you’ll swim in the balmy waters of employment doing what you love.