Volume 44 Number 5
Fighting an Uphill Battle in the Rocky Mountain State: Clear Choice Water Conditioning of Lamar, Colo.
When the small Colorado town of Las Animas installed a re verse osmosis (RO) system onto the town’s municipal drinking water supply three years ago because of growing amounts of sodium and chlorides, residential water treatment dealer Skip Ruedeman lost about 15 percent of his business.
Now, the town of La Junta, which is 30 miles west -- less than an hour’s drive from Ruedeman’s Lamar, Colo., business, Clear Choice Water Conditioning -- is considering doing the same thing.
All three communities lie along the Arkansas River, which flows onward into Kansas. Perennially arid conditions, complicated in recent years by El Niño, have resulted in complex water-sharing rules between the two states. It’s these rules that indirectly have led some communities to turn to centralized treatment, and the resulting restrictions on water discharges that affect water treatment dealers.
Avoiding a pickle
“We have a pickle plant (in La Junta) and they produce a lot of sodium and chlorides in the water,” he said. “What they needed was to do something with the pickle plant, put a system on there to reduce it down and not necessarily do it for the whole town, which only has 8,500 residents. Unfortunately, they didn’t do that.”
That first centralized RO system “virtually eliminated rental business” for three of his competitors in the region and likely will put one of them out of business, he said.
That’s because the water utility told rate-payers the RO plant produced bottled-water quality water and that further water treatment was unnecessary and simply added to the plant’s treatment burden and operational costs. This, however, doesn’t take into account that regardless of the quality of water leaving the plant, the water picks up contaminants in an aging distribution system. Here, pipes are lined with scale and bacteria growth in dead-ends and is difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate.
Regardless, the 15 percent drop in business that he experienced the year following installation of the Las Animas plant translated to about $50,000 a year in lost sales and rentals. Nevertheless, his revenues last year again reached six figures, and he’s hopeful that business soon will reach the same levels he saw in the late 1990s.
The situation for Ruedeman has been particularly frustrating because it comes at a time when the so-called economic recovery nationwide hasn’t reached his agriculturally dominated portion of the state, which saw little to no population growth in the past decade. During this time, the state itself saw a 25 percent increase in new residents.
With an eye on ‘El Niño’
According to the Colorado Drought Task Force’s March report, the state’s snow pack was about 45 percent of normal, the worst it’s been in 20 years. Though that figure was expected to improve in April, when the mountainous parts of the state see the most snow all year, the area of the state where Clear Choice is located isn’t expected to see much improvement.
In mid-March, Prowers County, Colo. -- which surrounds Lamar -- declared a drought emergency and is looking at ways to reduce water consumption, including limiting irrigation for area farmers.
Still, he estimates that with the three other dealers that operate in his area, the market “is only about 50 percent saturated, so there’s still plenty of work for us.” (See Enough to go ‘round.)
While he occasionally picks up some commercial jobs in the area, his business focuses primarily on residential customers. About a third of his work is in service, another aspect of the business he’d like to see increase. Otherwise, rental and sales comprise the bulk of his profits. He sells, services and rents just about everything, from residential softeners to ultraviolet systems to basic filters.
Keeping the faith
At 56, though, Ruedeman isn’t necessarily looking for ways to turn his shop into a huge operation. He’s just looking for ways to keep it stable so he can find someone to buy him out as he nears retirement. That’s why, despite the centralized systems cutting into his business, he’s still focusing on increasing his rental business.
“My house is going to be paid off in another 10 years,” he said. “And though the kids are gone, I’m still paying for their education.”
“I was looking for something different, and something that was my own business,” he said. “So I took my wife away from a big high-paying job and brought her out here -- and she’s still my wife.”
About the author
Clear Choice Water Conditioning
Owner: Skip Ruedeman, CWS-III
Gross revenues: About $100,000, though he expects a 10% increase in 2002
Products: Kinetico, Water Treatment & Accessories, RO/Conn
Quotable: “Interest is growing in the agriculture of cattle feeding and good water quality. And I’ve always had a lot of fun when I’ve got 150-grain water to work with. It’s kind of like being a sculptor facing a huge rock.”
-- Skip Ruedeman
Enough to go ’round
DeLoache, whose family has operated DeLoache’s Water Conditioning for nearly 45 years, agreed that there’s still enough business to go around. Both cover a five-county radius in southeastern Colorado and even venture into Kansas from time to time.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot of growth in the area, but we still seem to be doing about the same business we’ve always done, so that’s good,” DeLoache said. “And Skip (Ruedeman) certainly keeps us busy. He does solid work around here so that keeps us on our toes.”
For DeLoache’s business, water softeners took a hit, but drinking water systems “didn’t totally leave.” The growth potential as he sees it appears to be in bottled water, in part, because the centralized systems haven’t brought hardness and chemical levels down enough to suit some clients’ tastes, he said.
Ironically, however, he expects to see increases in bottled water sales not because of quality issues, but the drought conditions that have plagued the area in recent years.
Ruedeman said he offers bottled water as an added service, but doesn’t push it so much: “We do it on a very limited scale. I’ll put a cooler and deliver bottles of water to an office. And they’ll say, ‘Hey, can I do this for my house?’ I’ll say, ‘Yeah, but I can put in a rental system for $45 that’s a lot cheaper in the long run.’ It’s a little niche that brings in some cash flow.”
EXTRA: Centralized RO in Colorado
* RO Treatment Plant, Las Animas, Colo.: www.usda.gov/rus/water/ees/englib/pdf/cowtr1.pdf
* Evergreen Resources Proposes RO Plant near Valdez, Colo.: www.trinidadco.com/stories2001/news/05/08/emma.html
* Eriksson, P.K., “Small Systems: Nanofiltration as Salt Reducer-Behind the Clifton, Colo., Project,” WC&P, April 2001.
* “Colorado’s Clifton Water District Case Study,” Osmonics Inc.: www.osmonics. com/products/Page1098.htm
* “Relations of Main-Stem Reservoir Operations and Specific Conductance in the Lower Arkansas River, Southeastern Colorado,” U.S. Geological Survey: http://webserver.cr.usgs.gov/Pubs/fs/fs166-97/pdf/fs166-97.pdf