City partners with Homeland Security to keep Craig’s water supply safe

Eleanor C. Hasenbeck
Water from the Yampa River rushes past the Craig Water Plant's intake structure near Yampa Valley Golf Course in 2017.

CRAIG — When Craig residents turn on their taps, the water that comes out might be too hot or too cold, but rarely is it thought of as a potential threat. The folks at the Craig Water Plant and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are working to keep it that way.

The water plant is critical infrastructure, meaning it’s vital to the function of our society and economy. Homeland Security focuses national policy on protecting critical infrastructure in 16 sectors, such as water, public health, emergency services and agriculture.

“All these critical infrastructures, like water, wastewater and power, are more into the realm of a possible terroristic issue,” said Mark Sollenberger, city water/wastewater director. “They want to protect them, because they can affect a lot of people quickly.”

If the water system were compromised, Sollenberger said, it could endanger the entire city, about 9,000 people.

Cyber-security plays a crucial role in keeping water safe. In April 2015, the power plant was hit with numerous attempts to hack the plant’s digital backbone, the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system. The SCADA is the system that allows plant operators to interpret data about the entire city water system, from the filters in the water plant to the tanks that hold drinking water in residential areas. If something goes wrong in the system, operators know it because of the SCADA.

Attacks came from all over the world, including Europe, Russia and China, but the attempts never succeeded, thanks to a basic security measure everyone should be using: strong passwords.

Concerned by the attacks, Water and Wastewater information technology, SCADA and automation manager Carl Ray contacted Homeland Security to complete an evaluation of the plant’s cyber security.

Homeland Security audited the plant’s security systems and compiled a report, with suggestions to improve the plant. Ray implemented the organization’s advice, which called for updates to both hardware and software.

It also called for changes in procedure. For example, they’ve worked with the Colorado River District to secure the organization’s access to information.

“We manage Elkhead (Reservoir),” Ray said. “We’ve had to change and strengthen their ability to access our system to look at the data for Elkhead Reservoir.”

Now, the plant is updating its physical security. An expert from Homeland Security did a walkthrough of the plant’s infrastructure with Ray and Bill Leonard, interim captain of the Craig Police Department. Homeland Security is putting a new round of recommendations to protect the plant’s infrastructure into a second report, which will then be given to the city.

Since 9/11, the water plant has added a number of other security measures. The city discontinued its 24-hour water sale station to prevent people from visiting the plant after hours, and a fence went up around the plant. In the mid-2000s, more cameras were added to the plant’s surveillance system.

In terms of private homes, Ray advised using strong passwords. He said a really strong password is about 32 characters long, contains special characters, upper and lowercase letters, numbers and, if the system allows it, spaces.

If you do this, Ray said, “you have a very difficult to remember, but extremely secure password.”

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