Ravi Malhotra steps from an air-conditioned SUV and inhales the stench from mounds of human waste chips and rows of evaporation ponds cooking in the rising summer sun. This is the CB Industries-Delta Inc. Composting Facility, tucked along a back road among adobe buttes and gullies just outside of Delta, Colo., a conservative agricultural community.
With his trim mustache, business-casual clothes, deep brown skin and unmistakable Indian accent, Malhotra appears thoroughly out of place. Born and raised in Mumbai (which he still calls Bombay), Malhotra is progressive, well-educated and tech-savvy. He looks like someone you'd see walking briskly down a city street with a Bluetooth snugged in his ear, not casually chatting about the finer points of septic systems with cowboy-clad and bearded local septic pumper John Caven -- a conversation that began hours earlier over continental breakfast in a chain hotel.
But this is a typical day for Malhotra. He and his colleague Christopher Jedd are on a 72-hour journey around the state's Western Slope on behalf of Malhotra's Denver-based nonprofit iCAST -- the International Center for Appropriate and Sustainable Technology. The group's name and mission -- "to provide economic, environmental, and social benefits to communities in a manner that builds local capacity" -- make it sound like an aid group at work in the developing world.
And in a way, that's what iCAST is. The economic hardships in small Western communities are a far cry from the persistent poverty in developing nations. But even so, unemployment in Delta County reached over 11 percent during the recession, surpassing the statewide average. And average per capita income ranks near the bottom for Colorado counties. As in many rural areas, families scramble to get by, shuttered storefronts punctuate the streets, and wireless Internet remains a novelty. It doesn't help that educated young people tend to flee depressed rural areas for jobs in cities, leaving locals without much access to technical expertise. That makes it harder to tackle small engineering projects, develop ambitious business or marketing plans, or gain access to much-needed capital or credit. And many locals don't want help directly from the government.
ICAST tries to bridge those gaps, helping rural residents learn how to maintain or expand their businesses in ways that also benefit the environment. Malhotra is quick to say that he and his staff are not experts on sanitation or forestry, ranching or horticulture, although iCAST projects have addressed all those fields.
John Caven's predicament, though unique in its particulars, is hardly uncommon. He's a plumber with 40 years' experience, and most of his recent work comes from pumping septic systems and hauling waste in his truck, up to 2,000 gallons of sludge per trip. The recession has hit him hard because people put off septic maintenance when money's tight, and the rates he must pay to dispose of sludge at local facilities are two to three times the national average. In 2010, he had to cut his staff from 11 to two.
Caven explains that finding alternatives to expensive disposal areas might help; perhaps he could get equipped to handle treatment himself. Malhotra nods quietly. He doesn't react when the septic dump manager blames the economic slump on the state's Democratic leaders. And Malhotra knows better than to shift the conversation to talk about "sustainable development." After all, he's not here to promote an ideology or a specific approach. He's just here to help.