How one man’s quest for a cleaner Russian River turned into a movement
Chris Brokate did not intend to spark a revolution in watershed management when he hauled a load of trash from the Russian River in his weathered Chevy pick-up in 2014.
The Forestville man simply spotted a need after winter storms flushed debris from the river’s mouth onto the beach near the coastal community of Jenner.
“All of a sudden, we had all this stuff down here and I thought, ‘Who’s going to clean this up? Nobody was going to do it,’” Brokate said.
Four years and roughly a half-million pounds of trash later, Brokate’s Clean River Alliance is hailed as a model for improving watershed health. Brokate, 54, has earned numerous environmental awards for his work, while across California, communities rush to implement similar trash-hauling programs to combat blight and pollution.
The herculean task has come at a personal cost to Brokate, whose body and truck have taken a pounding from the work. As some measure of relief, a Sonoma County grant has allowed him the freedom to step away from his janitorial business and devote himself full time to the clean-up project, while friends have organized a fundraising drive to upgrade his wheels.
“The grassroots movement that Chris Brokate has led to clean up the lower Russian River is historic and without precedent,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes that stretch of the river. “We are talking tens of thousands of pounds of trash removed from our watershed.”
The nonprofit Alliance organizes public cleanups in the Russian River watershed from Hopland in Mendocino County to the mouth of the river in Jenner, as well as on numerous Sonoma County beaches and tributary creeks throughout Santa Rosa. Their work also includes disaster response, working with Caltrans on Adopt-a-Highway programs and homeless outreach to offset the effects of unsanctioned camping along the river and tributary creeks.
The Alliance is on target this year to surpass removing more than 500,000 pounds of material off the Russian River. In 2017 alone, the group organized more than 200 cleanup events, involving over 1,000 volunteers, and hauled away more than 170,000 pounds of trash from creeks, the Russian River and ocean beaches.
Brokate’s mostly-?volunteer staff operates the county’s only trash-collection service in homeless encampments along the river. Staff dispense garbage bags to people living in the camps and then return later in the week to retrieve and haul away the trash.
One man who agreed to bag his trash asked Brokate for only one thing in return – the Clean River Alliance shirt Brokate wore emblazoned with the organization’s catchy motto: “Where Talking Trash is OK.”
“I’d give the shirt off my back if they want to help. Hell yeah,” Brokate said.
Other organizations host trash cleanups on the river. But Brokate’s group is the only outfit doing the dirty work on a daily basis.
“Chris is doing something that no one else is doing anywhere else,” said Don McEnhill, executive director of the Russian Riverkeeper, an advocacy and stewardship nonprofit.
McEnhill said illegal dumping, homeless encampments and roadway littering are the main causes of trash ending up in waterways. The problem is not unique to the Russian River or to California, but a global concern. McEnhill said he had just finished watching an online video shot by an Indian official who stood clad in a hazardous materials suit in a river fouled with soiled diapers.
“It’s a problem in the rivers, but the bigger problem occurs when all this trash is exported to the ocean. We find plastic fibers in most seafood sold in grocery stores,” McEnhill said.
Brokate has an abiding love for the ocean, having lived most of his life in close proximity to California’s coast.
The Southern California native settled in Sonoma County in 2009 after driving through the area on his way to a medical appointment in San Francisco from his then-home on the Smith River in the far northwestern reaches of the state.
“I’ve always cared about the environment. It’s always been my passion,” Brokate said.
He perseveres with the clean-up work despite lingering pain from injuries he suffered years ago as a volunteer firefighter. His 2000 Chevy pick-up, which has more than ?289,000 miles on the odometer, also has not fared well under the strain and breaks down often, forcing Brokate to rely on his other vehicle, a Toyota Prius, to haul trash.
Brokate said he’s poured more than $10,000 of his own money into maintenance and repairs on the truck. His mechanic recently warned him to expect more problems because the engine is leaking fluids and the suspension is shot.
“I just can’t keep doing it,” Brokate said of the out-of-pocket expenses.
County supervisors approved a $100,000 grant to underwrite the Alliance’s work for 18 months. The money is from a homeless outreach fund and a portion of county hotel bed taxes.
Hopkins characterized the investment as a wise one, saying it would be “exorbitantly expensive” for the county to clean up trash on the river. As a result of his efforts, Brokate has been invited to speak statewide at gatherings of watershed stakeholders.
“Everyone in California wants what Chris is doing in Sonoma County,” Hopkins said.
Russian Riverkeeper, which is the fiscal agent for Clean River Alliance, is spearheading a fundraising campaign to help Brokate purchase a newer truck, preferably one with more hauling capacity.
The campaign has raised $15,000 so far, including a $10,000 grant from Sonoma Wine Country Weekend. The goal is to raise $30,000.
For more information, or to donate, visit russianriverkeeper.org/what-you-can-do/clean-river-alliance/givingtuesday/
Brokate said with a larger, more reliable truck, he could do more for the betterment of the river and surrounding community.
“We can get more trash off the river with your dollar than anyone else can,” he said. “We’ve proven that.”
Derek Moore can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadlinederek.