Water systems engineers have shaped the world for thousands of years. From the massive canals and levees used to irrigate Ancient China to the sewage-removing aqueducts of the Roman Empire, civilizations have depended upon their ability to harness the Earth’s most vital resource.
That is precisely what water systems engineers do: ensure the safe delivery of water for irrigation and human consumption, as well as the effective removal or recycling of wastewater. Water systems engineers not only design these systems; they also oversee their construction and maintenance. At a high level, they lobby for and set new policies and regulations regarding the infrastructure of water and they develop new technologies to distribute it better.
Water systems engineering is not an easy job. There are more than 150,000 water systems in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, more than one billion people live in water-scarce regions across the world, and that number could increase threefold or more over the next decade. As pollution increases to degrade freshwater sources, and climate change alters precipitation patterns, the challenges are more complex than ever. In short, the need for talented water systems engineers is dire.
Here is one pathway to become a water systems engineer:
After graduating from high school, a prospective water systems engineer will need to earn a bachelor’s degree from a school accredited by the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET). Very few schools offer dedicated water systems engineering degrees at the undergraduate level, and it is common for future professionals to earn bachelor’s degrees in broader disciplines such as civil, environmental, or chemical engineering, where the electives can prepare graduates for what to specialize in when selecting a graduate level degree later on.
Admissions requirements for undergraduate engineering programs vary from program to program, but typically include a competitive high school GPA (3.0 or greater), strong SAT or ACT scores, personal essays, and letters of recommendation.
Typical coursework in a civil or environmental engineering track, such as the one at Ohio State University, often includes subjects in engineering fundamentals, accelerated calculus, general and organic chemistry, fluid mechanics, transport processes, and environmental biotechnology, among others.
Texas A&M University offers one of the few dedicated water resources engineering programs available at the undergraduate level. While the core classes provide a foundational background for engineering in general, the required 33 credits of electives focus heavily on water systems engineering topics such as hydrogeology, water resources engineering, urban stormwater management, coastal engineering, and the hydraulic engineering of water distribution systems.
While it is not a requirement to practice in the field, graduate-level education is increasingly necessary to stay competitive. It is also where an engineer’s specialization kicks into full gear. Often housed within environmental engineering, specialized programs exist for water resources engineering, wastewater infrastructure, and water engineering and management.
Typical core coursework covers groundwater hydrology, open channel hydraulics, sediment transport, and surface hydrology. Electives dive even deeper, exploring areas such as coastal and nearshore processes, hydrodynamic mixing processes, river engineering, and computational modeling.
Graduate-level programs in water systems engineering are offered by:
Admissions requirements vary according to each program but tend to be more competitive than undergraduate options. Typical requirements include a competitive undergraduate GPA (3.0 or better), letters of recommendation, GRE scores, a resume, a statement of purpose, and evidence of proficiency in math, science, and engineering.
Some programs are designed for working professionals and will require a certain level of relevant field experience, while other programs are open to prospective full-time students who have recently earned a bachelor’s degree.
To practice independently, most engineers need to be licensed, and those licensing requirements vary from state to state. Prospective water systems engineers can read up on the precise details of any state’s requirements by visiting the website of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).
Several states require engineers to earn an engineer in training (EIT) or an engineering intern (EI) license by passing an exam on the fundamentals of engineering (FE). This exam ensures that candidates have the foundational engineering and safety knowledge necessary to practice. The test runs twice a year and may be taken more than once. Prerequisites vary from state to state, but undergraduate programs often prepare their students for the exam. Further information can be found through a program’s website or by contacting an academic advisor.
The NCEES offers FE exams in many sub-disciplines. The most appropriate test for a water systems engineer is in environmental engineering. The six-hour test covers math, probability, ethics, engineering economics, materials science, environmental science and chemistry, risk assessment, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, water resources, water and wastewater, air quality, solid and hazardous waste, and groundwater and soils.
Once a water systems engineer has met their state’s practice requirements, including earning an EIT or EI license, they can enter the field and work under the direction of Professional Engineers (PEs). Relevant work experience at this level prepares water systems engineers to become PEs. Further professional-level and board certifications will require multiple years of work experience at this stage as well.
While it is not a requirement, earning a professional engineering (PE) license is a valuable step for water systems engineers. It often leads to higher earning potential, career advancement, and wider responsibility. This allows water systems engineers to start their own private firms, bid on government contracts, manage major projects, and mentor EITs and EIs.
To earn a PE license, water systems engineers generally need a degree from an ABET-accredited engineering program, a passing score on the FE exam, several years (typically four) of relevant work experience, and a passing score on the Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) exam, offered by the NCEES.
The PE exam tests for competency in a particular engineering discipline. The one most relevant to his profession is the Water Resources and Environmental Engineering PE exam. The eight-hour test covers both breadth and depth. The breadth section focuses on project planning, means and methods, soil mechanics, structural mechanics, hydraulics and hydrology, geometrics, materials, and site development. The depth section goes into analysis and design, closed conduit hydraulics, open channel hydraulics, hydrology, groundwater and wells, water quality, drinking water, and engineering economic analysis.
Board and professional certifications are a voluntary but valuable addition to a water systems engineer’s career. These certifications demonstrate expertise and mastery in a subspecialty and can position professionals at the top of their field. Water systems engineers who attain these levels of certification often go on to steer the profession in new directions.
Through the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEES), a water systems engineer can earn the title of Board Certified Environmental Engineer (BCEE), specializing in water supply and wastewater engineering. To apply, candidates must be of good moral standing, hold a degree in environmental engineering, possess a valid license to practice, have eight years of progressively responsible professional experience, and be engaged on a full-time basis with the environmental engineering community. If all requirements are met, then the candidate may take written and oral exams to become board certified—and those exams may be waived in lieu of extensive (16 years or more), progressively responsible work experience.
Engineers can also receive board certification through the American Academy of Water Resources Engineers (AAWRE) as a diplomate of water resources engineering (D.WRE)—the highest level of advanced certification offered in the water resources engineering profession. Requirements include being able to demonstrate active engagement in the professional community, a valid license to practice, an undergraduate degree in engineering, and a completed graduate-level engineering program in a relevant sub-discipline. Furthermore, applicants will need to have eight years of work experience as a licensed PE and pass an oral examination. Please note that this examination may be waived if a candidate has extensive experience and superior qualifications.
The types of challenges water systems engineers face cannot be tackled alone. These are community-sized issues that require a cohesive community to solve. As such, there is a slew of resources available for aspiring and working water systems engineers to get together and collaborate:
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