Basic Hydrology

Gigi Richard
Colorado Mesa University


Basic Hydrology is an introduction to physical and applied hydrology and explores the components of the hydrologic cycle including processes of precipitation, evaporation, transpiration, infiltration, ground-water flow, surface runoff and streamflow. Students learn about each physical hydrologic process, and then are introduced to both field and modeling methods to measure and estimate rates of each process and how the results are applied in real-world situations. Assignments include problem-solving activities and reading summaries of scientific literature.

Course URL:
Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture only

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

Basic Hydrology is a restricted elective for environmental geology majors and is a required course for watershed science minors. College algebra is the only pre-requisite. Typically about half of the students are environmental science majors and the other half are geology students, both taking the course as an upper-division elective. Occasionally, there are some biology students, and more often a few engineering students taking the course as an upper-division science elective.

Course Content:

Basic Hydrology covers the basic processes of the hydrologic cycle. For each process the students learned the basics of how the physical process works and how it varies spatially and temporally and why. Then we cover how each process can be measured, estimated or modeled. When possible students retrieve real data and perform analysis on data from a field site relevant to them. For example, they develop flood frequency curves using USGS peak flow data for a field site nearby. For each hydrologic process students are exposed to why understanding and estimating a hydrologic process is relevant to solving environmental problems and grappling with environmental decision-making. Students are introduced to problem-solving strategies and are required to follow basic guidelines for the structure of their problem-sets that promote strong problem-solving skills. Students are also required to read and summarize a few articles from scientific literature throughout the semester. The summaries encourage critical thinking and synthesis of the concepts presented.

Course Goals:

Upon successful complete of this course, you should be able to:
  • Define, explain and correctly use terms and concepts used to describe basic physical hydrologic processes including evaporation, transpiration, precipitation, infiltration, ground-water flow and surface runoff.
  • Explain the hydrologic cycle and the ways that humans impact and interact with it.
  • Solve basic hydrologic problems to estimate the magnitude and frequency of hydrologic events.
  • Use basic accepted hydrologic modeling to quantitatively measure and estimate the role of physical processes in the hydrologic cycle.
  • Evaluate water resource management problems with awareness of the interdisciplinary nature of water resource management and decision-making in the Western U.S.
  • Read hydrologic research publications critically and discuss your thoughts

Course Features:

The format by which each hydrologic process is covered integrates geosciences, engineering and sustainability. The students first understand the science behind the basic physical process. For example, for precipitation, we discuss the physical processes of formation of precipitation and how those processes lead to both spatial and temporal variability and how we cope with that variability. Then we discuss methods by which we measure the process, analyze the resulting data, estimate rates, or model the process. Then we apply those results to solving a problem or answering a question. For example, evapotranspiration models are used to calculate agricultural water rights in Colorado. Many of these applications provide opportunities to discuss sustainable water resource management and development.

Course Philosophy:

This course was designed to be the introductory surface-water hydrology class for a new watershed science minor program. My goal has been to give the students a good understanding of basic hydrologic processes and to also help them see how understanding those processes is pertinent to grappling with the water resource issues we face in the western US and globally.


Assessment is accomplished via three in-class exams, a final exam, and take-home homework assignments. Exams include short answer and longer essay questions to test conceptual understanding of the physical processes as well as problems to assess understanding of the data analysis, estimation and modeling of each process. Some homework assignments are begun in class, then continue as homework. Many of the homework assignments are problem-solving assignments. Some assignments are reading summaries of assigned articles from the scientific literature.


GEOL 355 - Basic Hydrology syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 109kB Feb19 13)

References and Notes:

Environmental Hydrology, Ward & Trimble, 2003