AS the crow flies, Armando Valdez is about 14 miles from his home near Capulin as he tours the new Cleanwater Treatment Facility in the town of Antonito. It’s among his initial ventures into the San Luis Valley and other parts of rural Colorado as the new USDA Colorado rural director under the Biden Administration. 

That his work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture has brought him so close to home is a full circle moment for the gentleman farmer and rancher with generational ties to Conejos County. Serving essentially as USDA’s chief executive officer of rural development in Colorado, Valdez is learning on the job as he takes in every detail around the town’s wastewater project.

He knows there are many, many more trips into the small communities of Colorado over the next few years, and he sees his venture into Antonito and his session with Mayor Aaron Abeyta – certainly a familiar face – and others working on the project as the perfect, comfortable moment that will help him in his future travels.

“You know, rural development is the infrastructure support agency in rural communities and in Colorado, especially for USDA,” Valdez says. “​​And so what I would like to do is highlight and showcase these projects, Antonito being one of them.”

The project in Antonito received $2.8 million in funding from the USDA and Colorado Department of Local Affairs toward the total $4.6 million cost. Abeyta, the town’s mayor, said it’s part of Antonito’s overall infrastructure upgrade that positions the community for the future. “The infrastructure on Main Street, that was the very first grant that we did. And then we did the drinking water. Now we’re doing the wastewater. So essentially, we have all the foundational pieces. If in fact there is growth, then we have the capacity to handle all that.”

Valdez tours the facility with city officials and construction team

FOR the new USDA state rural director there are learning moments throughout his briefing on the project and his tour of the new treatment plant. He heard about grinder pumps that were part of a change order to the project which allows the new wastewater system to grind up items like baby wipes that shouldn’t get flushed down toilets but do. “I really like highlighting this,” he says, sensing that Antonito’s use of grinder pumps could be relevant and important to other communities he’ll visit.

He heard from the engineering company and contractor on the project – Atencio Engineering and Robins Construction – on the challenges they’ve had with supply-chain bottlenecks and pricing for various materials that brought additional factors into the project.

“Is there sufficient supply of commercial contractors that can do this level of work?” he asks Adam Robins of Robins Construction, knowing that as the Biden Administration injects more money into states and communities through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, more work in rural Colorado lies ahead and he’ll be along for groundbreaking ceremonies, briefings on projects, and traveling the state to make sure each corner is benefiting.

“I mean, one of the aspects that we really look at is how do we rejuvenate communities,” he says of his work as USDA state rural director. “If you heard in the State of the Union from President Biden a couple weeks ago, he talked about this circular economy approach that we want to reinvest, continue to reinvest, hire local, get dollars to be infused back into a community to where people get attracted and they want come to a community, instead of extraction where everything’s being taken away.”

Valdez is standing at Antonito Cleanwater Treatment Facility with the engineering and contracting teams looking pleased and satisfied with the day’s briefing. He got to see a new project and learned some along the way. The best part comes next because he’s not far from home, 14 miles as the crow flies.

There will be other days where his travels take him far away from Conejos County and the San Luis Valley. But on this day he’s close to home and he knows how his day will end – back at the family ranch and the sun setting with him back home in the San Luis Valley.

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