July 5, 2022

Water Resources FAQs

Detention basin and conveyance project in Las Vegas, NV. Detention basin and conveyance project in Las Vegas, NV.

Water resources engineering, for the purpose of this blog post, refers to stormwater.Not potable water, ground water, or wastewater.  

As a civil engineer working in the field of water resources engineering for nearly 28 years, Mark Failla, PE, CFM, Director, Water Resources, has been a professional resource for many colleagues, clients, and others outside the engineering community. The following is a compilation of the most frequently asked questions he has received, and his responses based on his many years of project experience.   

1.     What is the difference between hydrology and hydraulics?  

Hydrology is the study of the distribution and movement of water both on and below the Earth's surface. In civil engineering, water resources engineers typically focus on estimating the quantity (and quality) of stormwater runoff relevant to providing flood safety and prevention.  

Hydraulics is within a branch of science known as fluid mechanics. In civil engineering, water resources engineers typically apply this science to analyze or design various flood control facilities such as open channels, storm drain systems, spillways, collection facilities, detention basin inflow/outflow control structures, etc. This typically entails using specialized software to determine the hydraulic characteristics of the stormwater moving through, around, or over the various facilities and applying engineering judgment and design criteria to determine the adequacy.     

2.    What project services do you provide as a water resources engineer?  

Like most disciplines within the civil engineering field, a water resources engineer may provide a wide variety of services on a project, which may include: 

  • Develop drainage master plans for entire cities or individual developments. 
  • Perform detailed modeling to predict floodplain limits and identify flood hazard areas.  
  • Work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to modify existing or establish new Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs).  
  • Perform hydrologic studies to quantify stormwater runoff from rain events. 
  • Provide drainage recommendations for flood protection in support of residential, commercial, or industrial projects.  
  • Perform engineering design and planning for private and public infrastructure flood control facilities such as open channels, closed conduit storm drains, detention basins, dams, locks, inlets, energy dissipators, spillways, water quality features, soil stabilization measures, etc.   
3.    If I know how to use hydrologic and hydraulic modeling software, does that mean I am an engineer?  

To an extent, yes. This is where many young engineers begin applying their schooling. But beyond proficiency in utilizing a given software, engineers need to be able to assess the output for accuracy and practicality and then exercise engineering judgment obtained through experience. An engineer also needs to understand which software is appropriate to apply in any given situation. If the software is used for design, an engineer must be able to use it to conform to applicable criteria that typically establishes required safety factors.    

4.    What are some drainage initial considerations in the development of a project site (residential, commercial, or industrial)? 

The primary considerations typically include:  

  • Evaluate offsite watershed impacting the site.  
  • Identify impacts to adjacent property owners. 
  • Determine if a reasonable plan (hydraulically, financially, etc.) exists to perpetuate or divert flow around or through the site.  
  • Determine if the site plan accommodates the space needed and local design requirements. 
  • Assess if flow can be discharged in the same manner and quantity as under pre-development conditions.   
5.    Can you quickly tell me the peak storm flow rates impacting my project and the storm drain facility types/sizes needed to protect it?  

Although there are techniques to estimate these requests quickly, they involve a lot of assumptions. One common way to look at this is, "fast, good, or cheap--prioritize two." When a request for a quick answer is received, it is important to ask questions relevant to the use of the information and to always provide responses with caveats as to the accuracy and limitations of use based on priorities.      

6.    I want to be a well-rounded engineer. If I focus just on water resources, won't that limit my professional growth?  

Water resources offers a wide range of career growth opportunities based on types of projects and technical ability. Most projects in civil engineering are impacted by stormwater and often require assistance from the specialized knowledge of a water resources engineer. Therefore, a water resources engineer is exposed to many aspects of other civil engineering project types and disciplines through interaction with the project team.  

Additionally, water resources engineers often serve as project managers (typically involving large flood control infrastructure facilities). The water resources project manager is responsible for all aspects of the project. This is no different than a general civil engineer working on a residential community. Infrastructure projects require client interaction, negotiation of contracts, management of budget and schedule, coordination with utilities, technical analyses, plan production, specification writing, cost estimation, and construction support.  

Water resources engineers are also highly sought after in the job market, providing abundant opportunities.  

Focusing on a career in water resources engineering does not limit an individual's professional growth. Water resources is a specialty and a career path that provides as much diversity and opportunity as any other in the civil engineering industry.   

7.    What makes a good leader?  

I read an article by Jeff Haden in Inc. Magazine called, “7 Questions that Separate Great Bosses from Bad Ones”. Here are a few of the many ideas in the article that resonated with me: 

  • The best bosses want the job, not the title. They have people skills and technical skills.  
  • Outgoing, charismatic, confident people tend to be seen as leaders. People who work on the business, not in the business, are seen as leaders. But seeming like a leader doesn't make someone a leader--especially in the eyes of their teams.  
  • Research shows that while employees may appreciate occasional inspiration from their leaders, what they really appreciate is effectiveness: A boss who keeps everyone organized, on task, and focused on goals, and one who is quick to respond and step in and help wherever necessary.  
  • As the researcher writes, "If your boss could do your job, you're more likely to be happy at work."  
  • While your employees will work for whomever you put in a leadership position, given the choice, they would choose the person who helps them get things done, which is exactly what you need, too.  

Whether you are a civil engineer working on a project, a client developing a site, or a student entering the industry, you can find value in understanding the foundation of water resources services and the contribution of the water resources engineer. And, for those more experienced water resources engineers looking for a path to leadership, demonstrate your commitment to growing your team, developing the business, and expanding and sharing your knowledge. It can open doors!  

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