Forestville resident devoted to keeping Russian River clean
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.