Saving a Texas bayou, '16 bottles' at a time

No matter how much Bayou Dave hunts, his career never goes away. He finds it every time he sets out on Buffalo Bayou, a slow-moving...


No matter how much Bayou Dave hunts, his career never goes away. He finds it every time he sets out on Buffalo Bayou, a slow-moving river that runs through the nation’s fourth-largest city and heads toward its port. And so it was on a recent sweltering morning when he and his longtime deckhand Trey Dennis headed on a small barge to a boom they had put on the water the day before.

“Ah, isn’t that nice,” said Bayou Dave, whose real name is David Rivers, as the boom took shape.

What they sought and knew they would find was cradled in the massive embrace of the boom: a vast jumble of swirling trash.

There was a toy plane, a yellow soccer ball, a foam egg carton, and a pink nail salon flip-flop. There were takeout containers, disposable toothpicks and foam cups from 7-11 and Chick-fil-A. More than anything else, there was plastic — bottles that once held water, Coca-Cola, Gatorade, Sprite, Armor All All-Purpose Car Wash, and Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey.

Mr. Rivers maneuvered the barge to Trash Island – as big as a tennis court, it was a fraction of the trash that crosses the bayou every day – and he and Mr. Dennis got to work.

More than 200 square miles of sprawling Houston urban streets spill into Buffalo Bayou and one of its tributaries, White Oak Bayou, with runoff from every storm and rain carrying all kinds of debris tossed and lost in the waters.

Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis are among the handful of people who routinely intercept trash before it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.

Using a jury-rigged suction device made using adhesive tape, they carry the equivalent approximately 250 full trash bags out of the Bayou and its neighboring waterways each week.

Maia Corbitt, president of Texans for Clean Water, described the pair as “our last line of defense” before the waste flows through two environmentally sensitive estuaries and into Galveston Bay. Robby Robinson, Field Operations Manager for Buffalo Bayou Partnershipthe couple’s employer described their work as “endless, thankless, unrewarding”.

“You just have to be a special person,” Robinson said.

For Mr. Rivers, working on the Bayou is a calling. It has been cleaning its waterways just about every day of the week for a dozen years. Few people are more attentive to its inhabitants and its health.

Earlier this year, Mr. Rivers spotted, to his delight and relief, the first snakes he’s seen on the bayou since Hurricane Harvey wiped out much of its wildlife in 2017. revel in the vibrant colors that invade the shores of the bayou each spring and fall, rave about its varied birds, save baby turtles from trash rafts, and mourn the fish killed by periodic algal blooms.

“It’s the whole ecosystem that worries me,” said Mr Rivers, 51. “Animals are not responsible for the pollution. But they are directly affected by it.

Growing up in South Acres, a hard-hit Houston neighborhood, Mr. Rivers was a fan of the nature show “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and, later, “The Crocodile Hunter.”

He worked a series of jobs – stocking shelves at Target, fixing railroad tracks, working as a security guard, landscaper and cleaning up toxic spills after Hurricane Katrina – before being hired to work on the bayou in 2010 .

A rotating cast served as deckhands on Bayou Dave’s barge until 2015 when Mr Dennis came on board. A former high school football player who grew up in Mississippi, Mr. Dennis loved the physical side of the job. “I’m saving the world one bottle, OK, by 16 bottles, at a time,” said Mr Dennis, 30, whom Mr Rivers nicknamed Country Slim. “It’s the best way for our children to stay healthy in the long term.”

Buffalo Bayou is approximately 18,000 years old and was saved to be artificially deflected more than half a century ago, when environmentalists sought help from then-new congressman George HW Bush. In the 1980s, the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership was formed to maintain and create green spaces and hiking and biking trails along 10 miles of the approximately 52-mile bayou. About two decades later, board member Mike Garver introduced a barge that sucked up floating waste, which Mr Rivers later helped redesign after becoming its captain.

Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis have taken bayou waste disposal down to an art.

Their bayous-savior tank is a 30-foot barge speckled with rust. A hardtop bimini shades her helm, the only concession to human comfort, as the barge has no seats. A foot-wide suction pipe rests on her bow, taped to another massive pipe that feeds a containment area below deck.

Early on a Thursday not so long ago, Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis, both dressed in long-sleeved shirts, slacks and work boots despite the heat, donned life jackets. Mr. Rivers is wider in circumference;Mr. Dennis is lithe and muscular.

Watching the captain every moment, Mr. Rivers steered the barge to the edge of the boom, the thick mantle of trash billowing as he approached. A switch was flipped, a roar filled the air, and guided by Mr. Dennis, the pipe began sucking in plastic and polystyrene like a giant, voracious Slinky. Mr. Dennis grabbed a rake and jumped down to guide the waste into the mouth of the pipe. Points of sweat appeared on his forehead and moistened the back of his blue shirt.

Every now and then they would stop to pick up intact toys – the toy plane, the soccer ball – to later give to neighborhood kids.

Beyond the reach of the vacuum cleaner, half a dozen blackbirds searched the wreckage, while outside the spit, plastic bottles floated downstream. Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis position the booms according to the currents, but fail to catch all the trash. Although they work eight hours a day, it can take months to patrol the 22 kilometers they are tasked with clearing.

The wind shifted and a smell of rot enveloped the barge.

“Right now that smell is called bayou potpourri,” Mr. Rivers shouted over the din. Shortly after, a seam where the hose met the barge opened up, splashing the deck, with muddy brown bayou juice. “She’s nauseous, Trey,” Mr. Rivers cried, and turned off the vacuum cleaner.

Mr. Dennis jumped onto the deck and quickly repaired the crack with several layers of duct tape. About an hour later, a hatch on the deck began to spit out bits of brown material strewn with torn polystyrene pellets: the containment area was full and needed to be unloaded.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership removed 2,000 cubic meters of waste – the equivalent of 167 commercial dump truck loads – from waterways last year. Alongside the efforts of Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis, a second team, usually made up of people with community service sentences, uses nets and scavengers to clear the hardest-to-reach nooks and bayou banks. . Mr. Rivers keeps a list of the strangest things he has found: a basketball rack and hoop, several couches, bags of shredded cash. He used to joke that he had seen everything but the kitchen sink, until a few years ago when they found one too.

During the early days of the pandemic, Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis saw the amount of litter plummet as people weren’t littering, but the volume has since increased. Everything they take out is sent to a landfill. Over the years, several recyclers have offered to haul some of the Bayou’s waste, but Mr Robinson said they balk when they see it firsthand. “It’s mixed with organic matter, water and silt and it’s not really recyclable,” he said.

An obvious solution would be to prevent the trash from reaching the bayou in the first place. Mr. Rivers and Mr. Robinson support a state bottle bill, which would encourage people to return the containers for money. According to data compiled by the Container Recycling Institute, in seven of 10 states that have bottle bills, beverage container waste was reduced by 84%. “When it’s worthless, no one cares and it goes into the ocean,” Robinson said.

In the meantime, Buffalo Bayou has Mr. Rivers as their champion. It is videos posted of the Bayou smothered in online trash, and appeared on local media with the Kelly Clarkson Show, where he was interviewed by guest host Jay Leno. It fills the ears of people on boat trips with the how and why of all the trash.

That morning, Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis gave a brief review of their work. Inside the dam, the water from the bayou flowed easily, cleared of most of the plastic and polystyrene, at least for now.

“But don’t worry,” Mr Rivers said, as he guided the barge upstream, looking for more trash. “There’s more to come.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Saving a Texas bayou, '16 bottles' at a time
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