North Bay Spirit Award winner works tirelessly for clean water, less trash in Russian River
Crusader Chris Brokate mobilizes the homeless and other volunteers to keep trash out of the Russian River.
Robin Factor has a classic image that sums up her friend, Chris Brokate.
He’s in the back of a canoe, sharing the vessel with an assortment of junk — lawn furniture, a giant piece of carpeting, six tires.
A grinning Brokate stands on his seat like Gen. Washington on the Delaware, holding up his paddle like a sword as he triumphantly leads a Russian River trash flotilla laden with spoils back from another battle against garbage.
“Where there is trash, you will find Chris,” said Factor, who has worked beside him for several years on numerous cleanup expeditions.
For Brokate, the parade of canoes passing Johnson’s Beach or Monte Rio, each vessel loaded with litter, is one of the brighter moments in a very dirty job.
Five years ago, disgusted by the waste winding up on Sonoma beaches and along the river, much of it generated by homeless encampments, Brokate began marshaling volunteers to help clean up the mess. They called themselves the Garbage Patch Kids.
He partnered with other organizations, public agencies and the homeless themselves under the umbrella of what became the Clean River Alliance. Brokate claims their combined efforts resulted in more than a million pounds of trash being hauled from the river area, garbage that not only was a blight but fouled the water source for 600,000 people.
Two years ago the alliance was folded into the Russian Riverkeeper, a larger organization that is an advocate and steward for the 1,500-square-mile watershed. Renamed The Clean Team, they run a regular trash pickup service for the homeless while also providing outreach services. That includes educating them to take responsibility for keeping their encampments tidy and out of sight.
During floods and fire The Clean Team pitches in to remove trash and debris that might otherwise make its way into the river or storm drains. They laid snakes of straw wattle through a 5-square-mile area of Fountaingrove during the Tubbs fire of 2017 to capture toxic runoff before it made its way into the watershed. They also have taken responsibility for cleaning trash from 11 miles of highway along the Russian River and Highway 101 and assisting with creek cleanups in Santa Rosa.
“We mitigate trash at every level,” said Brokate, 56, who operates at a high speed, whether moving or talking. He is grateful but never fully satisfied, because there is always more to do.
“It’s a puzzle,” he said. “If we’re not doing the whole thing, we’re not doing it. If we’re doing this and there is still trash being developed by day use, we’re not doing it. We’re just putting a little Band-Aid on it, the smallest one in the box.”
Still, he persists. For his unfailing efforts on behalf of the Russian River watershed, Chris Brokate is the winner of The North Bay Spirit Award for August. A co-project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the award honors individuals who have gone all in to serve the community. Many, like Brokate, have poured their passions into a project they created themselves to address a community problem or need.
“Chris is relentless,“ said Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the upper Russian River. “Over the last four or five years he has become one of the true champions of the Russian River and its watershed. And he does it by leadership through action. What I love about him is that he continues to challenge all of us to do better and do more.“
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the lower Russian River, came to know Brokate by volunteering at one of his cleanup events and seeing him in action. She has called his grassroots movement “historic and without precedent.”
Hopkins attributes his success in building partnerships and buy-ins from so many different sectors to his credibility. He speaks “only about things he believes in.
“I would call him honest and forthright. That actually is refreshing,” she said. “He’s not going to blow smoke.”
Change in perspective
When Brokate first began his crusade to clean the river, he was angry at the homeless, posting videos on Facebook he now regrets about the trash they generated and often left behind.
His perspective changed one day when he and a crew of volunteers walked into a camp behind Safeway in downtown Guerneville bearing trash bags. He announced their arrival, the equivalent of a knock on the door, by calling out “Hello!”
“This little old lady poked her head out of a tent and goes, ‘Oh! You’re Chris Brokate. You’re the Trash Angel. We follow you on Facebook.’”