It’s a blustery November morning. Jasper Hardison has been up for hours, checking weather, conferring with his pilot and loading the helicopter that will take him to stream–gauging stations on Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge.

Hardison and three other U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Region hydrologists are wrapping up a six–year Kanuti Refuge water resources study.

In the Lower 48, Hardison says, such a study might be 90 percent project work and 10 percent logistics. At 1.6 million–acre Kanuti Refuge, which straddles the Arctic Circle, is roughly the size of Delaware, is roadless and is accessible only by air, “it’s exactly the reverse”­—90 percent logistics and 10 percent project.

Today in Bettles, AK, Hardison is awaiting sunrise. This time of year daylight is short—5½ hours. He already has lost a day this week to fog.

Finally, just before 10 a.m., the sun edges above the southern horizon, the helicopter lifts off, and Hardison is on his way.

His work is fundamental to legally protecting refuge water. Under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, one purpose of Kanuti Refuge is to “maintain the water quality and quantity to conserve fish and wildlife and their habitats in their natural diversity.” The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 directs the Service to obtain, under state law, water rights needed to meet refuge purposes.

Flying over Kanuti Refuge, it’s clear that water is a main ecological driver. The refuge encompasses more than 70,000 acres of wetlands and waters, including thousands of miles of meandering rivers and streams.

The study’s baseline data will be coupled with biological data to quantify the water needed to protect fish and wildlife. That information is needed to file for in–stream water rights to protect refuge waters from potential upstream threats, including oil, gas and mineral exploration and development.

Gathering the data is labor–intensive. During the six–year study, the hydrology staff has made up to seven multi–day trips to Kanuti Refuge annually. Hardison has made about 30 such trips. And the work of a hydrologist doesn’t end when the water turns to ice. Winter lasts eight months. Because water flow is critical for overwintering fish, it’s important to get an estimate of the flow—or lack of it. For Hardison, this means making the most of limited daylight hours and unpredictable ice conditions.

The first refuge stop today is Holonada Creek. After the helicopter settles onto the tundra, Hardison hauls gear through knee–deep snow down to the creek. He’ll spend the next 2½ hours in below–freezing temperatures. He’ll drill 15 eight–inch holes through nine inches of ice with a gas–powered auger. This will enable him to measure the water’s depth and velocity beneath the ice as well as pH, specific conductivity, temperature, salinity and dissolved oxygen. He’ll also download information from a data logger that records water flow. He’ll analyze that data back at the regional office in Anchorage.

His work done at Holonada Creek, Hardison packs up and flies to another of Kanuti Refuge’s eight gauging stations. His work continues over two days, despite temperatures that dip to 20–below zero. Soft ice limits work at some sites today, but when Hardison returns in March the ice will be up to six feet thick. When he finds open water on Henshaw Creek, he pulls waders over his insulated flight suit and wades in to measure stream flow.

The work requires persistence. Engines and instruments can become balky. Calibration fluids can freeze up. LCD screens can fog up or blink out. Augers can die; batteries regularly do. Keeping fingers warm requires vigilance.

But the work is rewarding. “You’re out there. It’s wild. It’s untouched,” says Hardison. “Doing something to keep it that way is very satisfying.”

By the time he wraps up the trip, all data–logger information has been collected and all gauging stations have been shut down for winter. Hardison and fellow regional hydrologists will be back in spring to begin a final season of data collection.

“The water resources folks are the unsung heroes of the Refuge System,” says Kanuti Refuge manager Mike Spindler. “Gathering hydrology data is difficult and time consuming, but by securing water rights their work provides lasting value for the refuge.”

Maureen Clark is an Alaska Region public affairs specialist.