Forestville resident devoted to keeping Russian River clean

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GUERNEVILLE – Forestville resident Chris Brokate has become a master of the before-and-after shot.

His “before” photos typically feature expanses of trash and debris of every size, shape and material that has been ground into riverbanks, hangs in trees and is stashed behind buildings and under local bridges.

The “after” pics? Land and beaches swept clean of soiled clothing, damp cardboard, torn bedding, waste paper, cigarette butts and other trash, more than 10 tons of it removed from the Russian River watershed in January alone.

Brokate, 51, has made it his mission to get mankind’s litter out of local waterways that would otherwise carry it out to the ocean’s edge.

In the past several months, he has mobilized dozens of people in lower Russian River communities for regular cleanup events, including some of the homeless whose encampments are among the most challenging work sites.

He and his growing brigade of volunteers have been scrambling in advance of winter rainstorms, slogging through muck and working in heavy downpours to clear high-water zones of debris that otherwise would be flushed downstream.

On a single December day, the group collected more than 11,300 pounds of stuff in less than four hours, he said, describing the process as “instant satisfaction.”

“I’m addicted to it,” Brokate said. “There’s this opportunity here to make a huge difference, and I kind of see that. There’s a void that needs to be filled.”

The Southern California native says he was inspired to take action by the view a year ago at the river’s mouth in Jenner, where rainstorms deposited more trash than volunteers could handle on the annual cleanup day that had been planned.

So Brokate organized one of his own with a handful of helpers, creating an organization he calls the Clean River Alliance. Soon, he was out cruising the river on weekends in his canoe with a couple of friends, pulling out everything from car batteries to old tires, televisions and propane tanks.

The movement didn’t gain real momentum until November, when Brokate began organizing regular cleanup events in Guerneville, nearby Rio Nido and other communities that coincided with growing concern about homeless encampments along the river. Even as the days became short and the weather less amenable to evenings outdoors, Brokate pulled together volunteer crews for Monday sweeps of Guerneville’s storm drains, central plaza, foot bridge and new Riverkeeper Park, on which Brokate had worked as a volunteer for Russian Riverkeeper.

Brokate says his focus is cleaning up the river “because it’s the right thing to do.” His message is resonating with locals, hundreds of whom gathered for a town meeting on homelessness and other issues last month and greeted Brokate with cheers and loud applause when he walked to the microphone.

Volunteer Wendy Bignall, 55, said Brokate’s appeal is, in part, that he doesn’t engage in politics and that he makes it “effortless” for people to get involved.

Working with the group is both highly satisfying, “and it’s simple,” she said.

“People are frustrated by the issue,” said Monte Rio resident Carol Shumate, 53, “and this way can do something besides just vent. They can work it out.”

“What Chris is doing is an amazing thing,” said Don McEnhill, executive director of the Russian Riverkeeper, an advocacy and stewardship nonprofit that recently signed on as fiscal sponsor for Brokate’s Clean River Alliance and hopes to expand the campaign watershed-wide.

“We are working from Ukiah to Jenner to make trash extinct,” McEnhill said, “and Chris is really the spearhead of that effort.”

Brokate moved to Sonoma County in 2009 and runs a commercial cleaning business called Green Janitor Service out of his River Road home. He was a volunteer firefighter by the age of 16, but was sidelined a decade ago by a fall and significant injuries. He has contributed time throughout his life to environmental and wildlife agencies that include the Russian Riverkeeper, helping that group remove trash and restore the five-acre Guerneville lot that is now Riverkeeper Park.

But nothing, he said, prepared him for the close interaction he has these days with members of the lower river’s homeless community, scores of whom camp out along the river or in the trees along River Road. He meets them in their camps and at the Veterans Memorial Building in Guerneville on Thursdays, when many come for showers.

Brokate has been handing out trash bags for months and has recruited volunteers to help clean up the camps and to stage piles of trash at convenient pickup spots where he or someone else with a truck can load it up for a trip to the dump.

At a recent cleanup in Guerneville, a frequent volunteer, Kerry Stewart, hauled at least a truckload of broken chairs, trash bags, bike wheels, metal grates and other garbage out of a wooded area near the river.

“My old camp is totally under water now,” said Stewart, 59.

Brokate’s helpers say he has a special gift for persuading even those on the margins to get on board.

“He’s got that soft touch: He just knows how to talk to people,” Sebastopol resident Sally Sorenson, 54, said as she carefully picked over the ground near the town foot bridge for what she calls “littles” — tiny paper scraps, candy wrappers, cigarette butts and bottle caps.

“He has done an amazing thing in bridging the divide between the housed and the unhoused in Sonoma County,” said Jed Heibel, manager for West County Health Centers’ homeless health care program. “He has been able to unify them around a singular goal of doing river cleanup, and that’s been a challenging thing to do.”

Brokate just says he has no choice but to interact heavily with the homeless if he wants to get trash out of the river. He also has helped others understand how nuisance litter puts the river and ocean environment at risk.

“I never really thought about it before, that when the river rises, yeah. Where is that stuff going to go?” said Guerneville resident Rawnie Clements, 63.

Said Shumate, “I used to kayak, and I would wonder how on earth has a pair of pants gotten 20 feet up in the air in a tree. Now I know.”

Eric Sturtevant, 66, of Cazadero, recently worked his second shift with Brokate and gang, afterward confessing, “I’m hooked. We’re doing something positive.”

More information about Brokate and his work is available at cleanriveralliance.com and on Facebook at Chris Brokate, Clean River Alliance.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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