Monday, May 28, 2012

How much money are US hydrologists earning?

How many hydrologists and meteorologists work for the US federal government? Which agencies do they work for? And how much money do they get? How does this compare to weather forecasters?

The bottom line first

For the busy readers, here’s my overall impression: the typical mid-career NOAA river forecasting hydrologist makes about $100k (US dollars per year, which is about 80k euros). This is a few thousand dollars per year more than meteorologists. Hydrologists that work outdoors earn less than those with desk jobs (e.g. the typical Forest Service hydrologist earns $70k). The positions (i.e. hydrologic technicians) that don’t require a degree, earn about $30k less than otherwise.


I hope those numbers are in metric. (source)

The database

Let’s take a tour of the online database of what nearly everyone in the US government is earning. The database is a good source for statistics so I wrote a little computer program to pull down the numbers and see what was there. That said, it can seem voyeuristic to be able to search for individual employees by name and find out their salaries and bonuses. In three clicks you can find out who the highest paid hydrologist in the government is. In four clicks you can find some of the lowest paid workers (Soil Conservation Technicians in Wyoming, we feel for you!)

Job titles for hydrologists

Here is the government’s job description of a Hydrologist (series GS-1315):

This series includes positions that involve professional work in hydrology, the science concerned with the study of water in the hydrologic cycle. The work includes basic and applied research on water and water resources; the collection, measurement, analysis, and interpretation of  information on water resources; the forecast of water supply and water flows; and the  development of new, improved or more economical methods, techniques, and instruments.

The “Meteorologist” position is similar, except substitute “weather” for “water” in the above paragraph. There is also “Hydrologic Technician”… Technicians are typically the people that install, maintain and repair instruments out in the field, but also spend time in the office reviewing and cleaning up data. Hydrologists typically need to have an advanced degree, whereas technicians do not.

Note that this doesn’t capture all the people that may work on water topics but are not themselves hydrologists, such as computer specialists, economists, natural resource conservationists, or people doing “general physical science”.

Also, while all river forecasters are hydrologists, there are many hydrologists that are not river forecasters. There are hydrologists that are focused on water quality and groundwater and many other sub-fields. This analysis does include river forecasters that work for federally owned hydropower companies (such as Bonneville Power) but not those in the private sector (such as Salt River Project). It also doesn’t include state and local government, only federal. 

It is easy to get distracted by all the other government job titles like “Sewing Machine Operator” or “Nuclear Materials Courier”. I can only imagine what a “Wiper” or an “Oiler” does, or if they get along with each other? How about the “Messengers” (of which there are 10 serving a city of 5,000 people in Arizona)? There are “Barbers”, “Buffers”, “Bakers” and even “Bulk Money Handlers”.

How many hydrologists are there?

For a country of 313 million people, there are 2.6 million federal employees, 177 thousand of which work in natural resources. There are 2,342 hydrologists, 2,789 meteorologists and 1,602 hydrologic technicians. It’s a rare profession indeed- if you introduced yourself to 20 strangers a day in the US, it would take on average over 18 years to meet a government hydrologist. Strangely, the government hires about as many Meteorological Technicians (371) as it does Funeral Directors (345).

Number of US Federal Employees described as Hydrologists, Hydrologic Technicians, Meteorologists and Meteorological Technicians in 2011.

Division Hydro Hydro Tech Meteo Meteo Tech
Commerce NOAA (Natl Ocean Atmo Admin) 295 2 2,667 365
USDA Agricultural Research Service 33 42 4  
  Forest Service 303 155 27 6
  NRCS (Nat Res Consv Serv) 31 17 1  
  Office of the Chief Economist     7  
Interior USGS (Geologic Survey) 1,398 1,252    
  National Park Service 52 24 7  
  Fish And Wildlife Service 37 8 4  
  Surface Mining 18      
  Bureau of Reclamation 28 64 2  
  Indian Affairs 9 3 1  
  Bureau of Land Management 68 17 7  
  Bureau of Ocean Energy     4  
EPA EPA (Environ Protect Agency) 42 3 5  
NRC Nuclear Regulatory Commission 17   2  
DOE Department of Energy 6   5  
Other Other 5 15 46 0
  Total 2,342 1,602 2,789 371

What agencies do these people work for?

Far and away, the Geologic Survey (USGS) is the largest federal employer of hydrologists (60%) and hydrologic technicians (78%). This is the agency that maintains the stream gage network in the US and also works on mapping groundwater, among other things. 

Similarly, if you want to be a government meteorologist, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is where 98% of the jobs in that field are. NOAA contains the National Weather Service. Meteorologists outnumber hydrologists 9 to 1 at NOAA.

Other places where a good number of hydrologists work include the USDA, National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

How much money do they make?

Salary and bonuses of Hydrologists, by government agency, sorted by median income per year in 2011. Redder colors mean relatively more money.


9 in 10*

Median pay


1 in 10*

EPA 69 113 135
NOAA 79 100 130
USGS 59 91 136
Agricultural Research Service 67 90 146
National Park Service 70 90 115
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 66 86 108
NRCS 57 85 114
Bureau of Reclamation 63 80 90
Forest Service 51 71 94
Bureau of Land Management 57 69 89
*“9 in 10” (or 1 in 10) people in the agency make more than this amount

The columns on the left and right give a range of the salaries within the agency. For example, if you look at the first row, 8 in 10 hydrologists at the Environmental Protection Agency make between $69k and $135k per year, with half of the people making more than $113k. For reference, median income of all wage earners in the US in 2010 was about $26k per year (not including bonuses). Bonuses for hydrologists are typically not much, often less than a thousand per year.

In other words, EPA and NOAA hydrologists earn about $30 thousand a year more than those at the Forest Service. Another standout is the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). It only employed 33 hydrologists but many of them were very well compensated. Two of the top three highest paid hydrologists in the country work for the ARS, making more than $170 thousand per year.

Salary and bonuses of Hydrologic Technicians

Division 9 in 10*

Median pay


1 in 10*
USGS Geological Survey 29 52 77
Agricultural Research Service 28 51 62
Bureau of Reclamation 31 49 69
National Park Service 37 43 48
Forest Service 28 35 56

*“9 in 10” (or 1 in 10) people in the agency make more than this amount

Here’s the same table, except for hydro techs (for agencies with substantial numbers of them). All in all, hydrologic technicians make a little more than half what regular hydrologists make. Again, the main difference is that hydrologic technicians typically do not need an advanced degree.

Hydrologists versus Meteorologists

If you remove the top 25% of earners in each category (i.e. you just consider the typical employee and those just starting) meteorologists earn about $5-$10 thousand more per year than hydrologists. This is likely because meteorology is more of a desk job and there are many hydrologists (e.g. at the National Park Service and Forest Service) that spend about half their time outdoors collecting data.

Therefore, it would be more apples-to-apples to compare hydrologists and meteorologists only within NOAA. These hydrologists are likely to be operational forecasters working for the National Weather Service (NWS) River Forecast Centers. Here, the median salary for hydrologists is more than meteorologists ($100k and $97k respectively). The difference gets bigger towards the low end, i.e. 1 in 20 NOAA hydrologists earn less than $69k, whereas 1 in 20 meteorologists make less than $50k). I suspect that there’s a large pool of junior meteorologists within the NWS and some of them branch out into a hydrology specialty. The difference in pay may reflect a difference in seniority and time with the agency.

More resources

The US Geologic Survey employs the most hydrologists of any agency and have a description of what hydrologists do. Elsewhere on the web are also descriptions of salaries of hydrologists (in 2010), advice on how to become a hydrologist. My top pick is’s page of hydrology career facts. The salary numbers on those pages may be lower than what I mention because they may only include entry-level positions?


  1. Wow. I had no idea the Fed employee search tool was out there.
    I think the southern latitude expression would be CRIKEY!

  2. Federal Salaries: Double wow. Didn't know that was available to the public.

  3. One thing I just noticed is conspicuously absent is the Army Corps of Engineers. Surely they have hydrologists but perhaps they are classified under a different name?