Securing Our Future: Water, Cybersecurity, and a Regional Innovation Hub

By: Curtis Englehart | Executive Director, Grand Junction Economic Partnership

Originally published in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel 6.18.2023

Why is the protection of the Colorado River so important?  Over 70% of the flow of the Colorado River originates in Western Colorado.  The 1,450-mile-long river drains an expansive, arid watershed encompassing parts of seven U.S. states and two Mexican states, providing water to 40 million people.  

The Colorado River is infamous for its stresses due to over-allocation, overuse, and more than a century of manipulation. The watershed spans 8% of the continental U.S. and funnels into the sixth-longest river in the nation, yet continued overestimations of the river’s bounty create a significant threat to the western United States.  

Due to decades of aggressive water use, demand now exceeds supply.  We are seeing projections of two-to-four-million-acre-a-foot annual deficits. Water policy and protection have been a hot topic in Western Colorado for many years. And as new technology emerges, so does the increased risk of cyber-attacks. 

According to a memo released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cyberattacks on our water systems significantly threaten national security.  Recent attacks on water facilities have occurred in California, Nevada, and Florida.  It is becoming apparent that we must protect one of our nation’s most valuable assets—water. The EPA has said that water facilities must fix significant deficiencies in cybersecurity.  It is hard to believe that many dams are “offline”, and the operation is not coordinated due to cyber security threats; those online are vulnerable to attacks due to a lack of defenses. 

Therefore, our community must understand effective ways to protect critical infrastructure and secure our future.  At the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, we have been laser-focused on keeping up with the CHIPS and Science Act legislation and understanding how our community can partner with the State of Colorado to drive innovation. This $10 billion act of federal legislation includes $500 million appropriated for this fiscal year to designate 20 tech hubs across the nation and 1/3 of them must support rural areas. 

On May 23rd, I had the pleasure of joining a powerful and passionate group of local leaders in a pitch event on Regional Innovative Tech Hubs in Denver. This pitch event aimed to review tech hub models throughout the state to narrow down the top strategies in Colorado.  

As our community leaders came together to strategize on our tech hub focus, it became our priority to protect critical infrastructure, particularly the Colorado River.  We created three goals within this tech hub model: (1) Water Storage, (2) Water Policy, and (3) Water Protection.  These goals can be further broken down into developing a strategy for purifying and preserving our water and understanding water policy through identifying efficiencies and promoting education. Lastly, we must determine ways to protect our water through cybersecurity, workforce, and talent development.  

Mesa County is uniquely qualified and an ideal fit for a Regional Innovation Tech Hub, as we are a rural community with urban benefits. Our community is strategically located in the heart of the Rocky Mountains with direct access to the Colorado River and is the largest metropolitan region between Denver and Salt Lake. Additionally, Western Colorado is a natural disaster-mitigated area, making it a safe place for businesses to invest. 

Our proximity to major transportation routes, including I-70 and the Grand Junction Regional Airport, allow businesses to reach customers and suppliers nationwide. Additionally, we have a strong labor force and talent pipeline through Colorado Mesa University, Western Colorado Community College, and Mesa County Workforce Center. 

Our tech hub model is unique because we’ve partnered with many community stakeholders, including the cyber security organization, GroupSense. GroupSense’s CEO, Kurtis Minder, once described by The New Yorker as the world’s best cyber security negotiator, lives in Grand Junction and has strongly advocated for our tech hub model at the national level. His partnership is critical to this model’s success.  

As we learn more about the vulnerability of critical infrastructure regarding cybersecurity, it’s clear that this is a national issue. The 2023 World Economic Forum Global Risk Report identified widespread cybercrime and cyber insecurity in the top 10 global risks for the next decade, anticipating attempts to disrupt critical technology-enabled resources and services, including agriculture and water. The White House National Security Strategy also listed priority number one as “Defend Critical Infrastructure” through expanding cybersecurity requirements in critical sectors to ensure national security and public safety. 

As the digital world interfaces with our physical infrastructure, the importance of protecting the Colorado River from cyber-attacks cannot be overstated. By fortifying digital infrastructure, investing in robust cybersecurity measures, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders, we can mitigate the risk of potential disasters and secure the river’s sustainable future.  

Collaboration and innovation run deep in Mesa County. And it is through this collaborative spirit that we can achieve this momentous goal. This has been demonstrated firsthand over the past decade as we’ve worked together to create a diversified economy that is now the most resilient local economy we have ever seen.  

Safeguarding the Colorado River protects the livelihoods of millions, preserves the environment, supports economic prosperity, and upholds national security. Let us prioritize the protection of this invaluable resource to ensure its well-being for generations to come.  

Interested in partnering with the Grand Junction Economic Partnership? Please email curtis@gjep.org

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