On the road with Mark Udall

Special to The Colorado Statesman

“Does Jim Rizzuto still smoke his pipe?” U.S. Senator Mark Udall asks. It’s Friday, the 13th of January, we’re in La Junta and, yes, Jim Rizzuto, former Joint Budget Committee member and now the president of Otero Junior College, still smokes his pipe.

This is a day on the road with Mark Udall, a day that brings back memories of my days on the JBC, as director of the Department of Local Affairs and the International Trade Office. It’s how government should work — by getting out to all parts of the state, listening to what people have on their minds and looking for practical solutions. For that reason, I’m honored to be with Mark Udall. My last trip with him was to visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital, a visit he has made many times.

At 10 a.m. that morning, we were in Rocky Ford at an extraordinary company called Innovative Water Technologies that makes a solar powered water treatment system called Sunspring which is being installed in poor countries like Haiti. I met the president of the company, Jack Barker in Colombia in November, 2011 when he was looking for business there. When I learned that Mark was going to visit their headquarters in Rocky Ford, I joined in because this technology is right in line with what Mark has been trying to promote in terms of business development, the environment and job growth.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and former state legislator and current president of Otero Junior College Jim Rizzuto reunite in La Junta.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

Sunspring is a portable, self-contained, solar-powered water system capable of treating up to 5,000 gallons of safe drinking water per day for ten years. Using it, you can bring the cost of safe drinking water down to less than one cent per gallon, compared to maybe 10-20 cents per gallon for bottled water.

Barker went to Haiti twice after the earthquake, staying for a month the first time and three months the second time. Now he has an employee there and has installed about 30 of these systems.

Sen. Mark Udall presents an award to Carmen Barker, the owner of Innovative Water Technologies in Rocky Ford.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

The goal of the Rocky Ford meeting was to brainstorm other potential markets. Being on the Armed Services committee, Mark was interested to know, for example, that this technology had been tested in Kandahar, Afghanistan where American soldiers have adequate supplies of drinking water but very little for personal hygiene or washing clothing. In addition, the cost of getting water to soldiers in advance bases can be as much as $200 per gallon. Mark also identified FEMA as a potential user in disaster situations. Lastly, these systems could be installed in small rural communities where the cost of building a traditional water treatment system is prohibitive. It was noted that Rico, Colorado has had to give up its bag filter system because the cost of replacing the bags is just too much.

Sen. Mark Udall, center, poses with Innovative Water Technologies staff in Rocky Ford.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

Anyway, it was fascinating seeing him and his staff helping a small company in a rural area to develop new markets for a unique technology. And it was impressive to hear that the company is located in Rocky Ford because of a highly professional proposal from Otero County officials. Rural areas like Rocky Ford need to diversify from too much dependency on agriculture but that’s not easy to do.

We then convoyed up to Ordway for a meeting with the county commissioners. They too are looking for economic development ideas — a business incubator, growing mushrooms, bio diesel using feedlot waste, developing recreation at Lakes Henry and Meredith, working with the Army to make Crowley County a recreation area for wounded warriors. There was also discussion of banking regulations that are now too onerous and putting small banks out of business, the ongoing problems ranchers face in getting credit, and the hot new issue of developing regulations for fracking.

Our third meeting was at Otero Junior College in La Junta where Mark asked about Jim Rizzuto’s pipe. This was a wide ranging question and answer session attended by over 100 people. Perhaps the most contentious issue was the Piñon Canyon expansion. The strong effort by Mark and other members of the delegation, both in legislation and by working with the Secretary of the Army, seemed to me to have stopped this process cold. As was clear at this meeting, not everyone agrees. I admired Mark’s patience and courtesy in answering questions that he has surely heard many times before.

Other issues concerned possible cuts to retirement benefits of veterans and retired federal employees, outsourcing and trade imbalances, keeping Fort Lyons open, and the need to come up with more local attractions like farm tours. Mark’s staff members, Jen Rokala, his state director, Gloria Gutierrez from Pueblo, Tara Trujillo, the communications director, Jesper Frant and Rachel Outman mixed with the crowd and picked up other ideas.

As I returned to New Mexico late that afternoon, I realized how different this was from the image of politics that we see on TV talk shows every day. This was a day of sharing ideas, not placing blame; of looking for practical solutions and avoiding partisan ideology. It made me proud to be a part of it.

Morgan Smith served in the Colorado House of Representatives and on the Joint Budget Committee and was also the executive director of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. He is a contributing columnist for The Colorado Statesman.