Smack dab in the middle of where two rivers converge is the hub of the Yuba-Sutter area. It’s an area prone to flooding, and locals pay attention when the rivers start to rise. 

It’s not everyone who maintains interest in what’s going on with the area’s hydrology year-round. Kaitlyn Chow isn’t everyone. Sure, the 25-year-old hydrographer for the Yuba Water Agency gets paid to do so, but for her it’s more than the money – it’s a passion. 

Studying what the rivers, lakes, groundwater table and snowpack are doing while understanding incoming weather patterns are all in a day’s work for the Orange County native.

“I really like field work; I couldn’t hold a job that requires me to sit behind a desk. I really like quantifying water. It’s not as charismatic as, say, working with sea animals or something like that, but it’s so important. You need it for agriculture, to support the population, really anything you do. So, trying to quantify something that is always moving and changing – I like the intricacies of it,” Chow said.

Chow got her education at California State University, Monterey Bay, where she studied environmental science as an undergrad, specializing in hydrology and geology, before obtaining her master’s degree in watershed systems.

She was drawn to environmental studies because it allowed her to go outside and learn. She said the profession is perfect for someone like her because it allows her to splash around in the river like a kid again.

After graduating, she saw a job posting online for the water agency. She wasn’t too familiar with the area, but her family knew all about what it has to offer. 

“My family was very familiar with the Yuba River. I come from a family of fishermen. My dad has fished the north fork of the Yuba for years, so when I brought up the job, he knew all about it. Fishing is what got me to love the outdoors in the first place,” she said.

A job that’s fluid

Chow has been with the water agency for about a year and half. On a typical day, she gets to her remote office in Yuba County around 7 a.m. to make sure data instruments throughout the watershed are functioning properly and reporting accurately. If there are issues, she plans on ways to fix the problem, if not, she begins her field work.

To check groundwater levels, she travels around to any one of up to 200 wells located throughout the county, where she deploys sensors down the well to determine the depth of water. Throughout the day, she stops at instruments set up along the Yuba River to make sure they are working. The data she collects along the way is used to help water managers throughout the region make decisions – and when the rivers are high, those decisions can be life or death.

“Kaitlyn Chow is one of two hydrographers responsible for ensuring our water measurement and reporting system is accurately measuring the flow and lake levels in key stream locations and reservoir locations,” said Curt Aikens, general manager of the Yuba Water Agency. “This is critically important for meeting regulatory requirements, ensuring we have adequate water supplies and managing flood flows within safe channel capacity levels.”

Another aspect of the job Chow enjoys is the fact that she can continuously learn.

“It’s always interesting to find what new techniques can be applied with old ones. It’s not just learning about water, but also new instrumentations. This field is a lot like water in that it’s fluid – you’ll never stop learning,” Chow said. 

When a data instrument breaks down, she responds no matter the adverse conditions or how secluded the location is. Chow comes equipped with the mind to figure out a fix, along with a jovial personality that can entertain even the driest engineer. 

“It’s never boring because you are learning how to do new things on the fly every day. There’s a lot of different hats you wear,” she said. 

Chow said she has landed her dream job and loves the fact that while the agency is growing, it feels like a tight-knit group. Her colleagues say she brings a professionalism and dedication to the job that is important to the agency’s goals. 

“Kaitlyn’s self-reliance, confidence and determination stemming from her passion for the outdoors – fishing, hiking, backpacking – and world travels has greatly contributed to her ability to work independently in all types of inclement weather in remote locations in the Yuba watershed,” said Charlie Johnck, supervising hydrographer for the water agency.

“Lastly, it’s easier to work with people that you can laugh and talk with; her sociable nature has enabled friendships to flourish with many of our colleagues.”

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