Walter Langbein was a public servant in every sense of the word. Born in New Jersey in 1907, he obtained his civil engineering degree in 1931 from Cooper Union while attending night classes and working for a construction company. In 1935 he joined the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Albany, but within a year he was transferred to the national headquarters, where he served as a research engineer and senior scientist until his partial retirement in 1969 to avoid administrative duties.
Langbein was the leader in all fields of hydrology for the country as well as the USGS. His 1955 book Floods, with W. G. Hoyt, was instrumental in the development of the National Flood Insurance Program. With Luna Leopold he worked to establish a national program in water resources research, which led to the development of the Office of Water Resources Research and the recognition of hydrology as a scientific discipline in the academic community in the United States. Walter was instrumental in founding the International Hydrologic Decade (1965–1974), and his participation in the Decade focused attention on the determination of the worth of hydrologic data for water resources development. The theory of scientific network design for water data networks grew out of his work.
Langbein was an innovator and leader in every subject in surface water hydrology. He developed methods in flood hydrology and the application of statistical methods to the analysis of hydrologic data. He studied evaporation from water bodies varying from small stock ponds on the Navajo Reservation to Lake Mead. He studied infiltration in stream channels and its effect on flood wave passage. As early as 1944, Langbein was interested in the use of hydrologic data for the estimation of climate change. He early tried to determine a rational method for the prediction of sediment movement in rivers and lake sedimentation. His work on quantitative geomorphology of river channels was innovative and pioneering. Langbein was full of ideas and freely gave those ideas and the credit for them to others. He was able to outline a problem and point to a solution, meanwhile convincing others that the idea and the solution was theirs. In this selfless manner he contributed more than is gathered from reading his bibliography.
His final full-time assignment for the USGS was to integrate the budget justification of all the water agencies in the Department of the Interior. This grew out of his interest in the application of operations research to water resources. Langbein retired in 1969 so he could return to research. He continued to work for the USGS in retirement, in particular on the International Hydrologic Decade and rational network design. He died in 1982.
Walter Langbein received the William Bowie and Robert E. Horton Medals from the American Geophysical Union, the J. C. Stevens Award of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Distinguished Service Award of the Department of the Interior, and the Warren Prize of the National Academy of Sciences.
—David R. Dawdy
San Francisco, California