It’s hard to fathom what 1.5 million pounds of trash might look like — and more troubling still to see that much litter wash downstream in the Russian River to the Pacific Ocean.
Standing in the way to make sure that doesn’t happen has been Chris Brokate, who in 2015 decided one day he no longer could watch as the watershed was transformed into a dumping ground, with litter and debris swept out to sea amid winter rains.
Since that pivotal day, Brokate, founder of the Clean River Alliance, has spearheaded the removal of about 750 tons of garbage and abandoned wreckage from the Russian River watershed through trash collection events and special projects.
It’s a worthy legacy to consider — one acknowledged by numerous awards and accolades — as Brokate, 56, outgoing Clean Team program director for the Russian Riverkeeper, prepares to leave Sonoma County and build a new semiretired life in Ecuador.
He’s approaching the move on Tuesday with a mix of excitement and sadness, confronting “emotions I’ve never experienced in my life.”
There also is a sense of unfinished business — local policies he still wants to change, public habits he would still like to break, time lost to the pandemic he still would like to make up. Social distancing protocols kept all kinds of road crews, public and nonprofit, from doing their usual work for several months last year, and there is more trash in the environment, as a result, Brokate said.
“The only thing that’s really saving us from seeing massive amounts of trash from coming down the river is this drought,” he said.
His departure, too, has elicited a wave of sadness and acknowledgment that his shoes will be hard to fill.
“Honestly it’s really hard to imagine the Russian River without Chris Brokate,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose lower river district has perhaps most benefited from Brokate’s efforts.
She recalled meeting him at a cleanup event while running for office in 2016 and being “blown away by what a hard working, good, kind and brilliant human being he was.”
“You know, the idea seemed so simple: Why do we have so much trash in the Russian River? Why can’t we just stop that? He just one of those rare human beings who has a gift and uses it for good,” she said.
Exit of ‘Mr. Can-Do’
For his part, Brokate says he’s proud of the work he’s done on behalf of the watershed, though he chalks any successes up to “right time/right place” and support from his core team, key partners and the Russian Riverkeeper, the environmental group that seeks to protect and restore the river ecosystem.
Don McEnhill, executive director of the nonprofit organization, said Brokate’s roles and responsibilities are so wide in scope they may have to be divided among several people.
“It’s going to be impossible to replace him,” McEnhill said. “I don’t think anyone but Chris could have brought things to where they are today. He has such a unique blend of just this boundless enthusiasm. He is Mr. Can-Do — he just figures it out and makes it happen. Then there’s just this infectious spirit he imparts on people who work with him on picking up trash.”
Brokate, who grew up in Southern California and was once a volunteer firefighter, has lent his time to environmental and wildlife causes throughout his life.
He moved to the lower Russian River in 2009 and quickly found his place as a volunteer with the Russian Riverkeeper, helping to transform a snarl of weeds, blackberry bushes and trash-filled campsites in Guerneville into Riverkeeper Park, as well as contributing labor to seasonal cleanup events.
During the winter of 2014-15, while living in his mobile home at River Bend Resort in Forestville, he noticed trash passing by in the river after a rain.
Brokate decided to go down to the mouth of the river at Jenner to check out the situation and was stunned to find the beach littered with garbage even though he had recently participated in a big trash collection event there.