Helen J. Peters was born and raised in Sacramento, California, and attended local schools through junior college, completing her education at the University of California at Berkeley with a B.S. in civil engineering with an irrigation and drainage option in 1951. Her interest in water started early, since her family activities centered around camping, swimming, and other athletics. Swimming and badminton were her major sports in college; she was a member of the Conference Champion badminton and swimming teams at junior college and swam the mile for Berkeley in meets with local colleges.
At Berkeley, she served as secretary and vice-president of the Student Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and was awarded the Woman's Badge in Tau Beta Pi. Her interest in hydrology led to specialization in groundwater and geology through selection of optional research units.