Saving a Texan Bayou, ‘16 Bottles’ at a Time

Bayou Dave, a modern-day Sisyphus, has spent the last dozen years ridding a trash-choked Houston waterway of plastic and Styrofoam.

HOUSTON — No matter how much Bayou Dave hunts, his quarry never goes away. He finds it each time he sets out on Buffalo Bayou, a slow moving river that wends through the country’s fourth largest city and out to its port. And so it was one recent sweltering morning when he and his longtime deckhand, Trey Dennis, headed on a small barge to a floating boom they’d set out on the water the day before.

“Ah, isn’t that sweet,” said Bayou Dave, whose real name is David Rivers, as the boom swung into view.

Cradled in the boom’s massive embrace was what they were looking for, and knew they’d find: a vast whorling jumble of trash.

There was a toy airplane, a yellow football, a foam egg carton and a nail salon pink flip-flop. There were takeout containers, disposable dental picks and Styrofoam 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 multipurpose car cleaner and Fireball cinnamon whiskey.

Mr. Rivers maneuvered the barge over to the island of garbage — as big as a tennis court, it represented a fraction of the trash that flows through the bayou each day — and he and Mr. Dennis got to work.

More than 200 square miles of Houston’s sprawling urban streets drain into Buffalo Bayou and one of its tributaries, White Oak Bayou, with the runoff from every storm and rainfall carrying all manner of tossed and lost debris to the waters.

Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis are among the handful of people who regularly intercept the garbage before it finds its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

Using a jury-rigged suction device crafted with the help of duct tape, they haul the equivalent of about 250 full garbage bags out of the Bayou and its nearby waterways each week.

Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times
Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

Maia Corbitt, president of Texans for Clean Water, described the pair as “our last line of defense” before the trash flows through two ecologically sensitive estuaries and into Galveston Bay. Robby Robinson, the field operations manager for Buffalo Bayou Partnership, the pair’s employer, described their work as “endless, thankless, no reward.”

“You just gotta be a special person,” Mr. Robinson said.

For Mr. Rivers, working on the Bayou is a calling. He’s been cleaning up its waterways pretty much every weekday for the past dozen years. Few people are more attuned 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. He revels in the riotous colors that crowd the bayou’s banks each spring and fall, waxes rapturously about its assorted birds, rescues baby turtles from rafts of trash, and mourns the fish killed by periodic algal blooms.

“It’s the whole ecosystem I’m concerned about,” said Mr. Rivers, 51. “The animals aren’t responsible for the pollution. But they’re directly affected by it.”

Growing up in South Acres, a hard bitten Houston neighborhood, Mr. Rivers was a devotee 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, mending railroad tracks, working as a security guard, landscaper and cleaning up toxic spills after Hurricane Katrina — before getting 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 aboard. A former high school football player who grew up in Mississippi, Mr. Dennis adored the physicality of the job. “I’m saving the world one bottle, OK, by 16 bottles, at a time,” said Mr. Dennis, 30, who Mr. Rivers nicknamed Country Slim. “This is the best way for our children in the long run to stay healthy too.”

Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times
Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

Buffalo Bayou is about 18,000 years old, and was saved from being artificially rerouted more than half a century ago, when environmentalists enlisted the help of George H.W. Bush, then a new congressman. 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 roughly 52-mile bayou. About two decades later, a board member, Mike Garver, introduced a barge that suctioned up floating garbage, which Mr. Rivers later helped redesign after he became its captain.

Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis have bayou trash retrieval down to an art.

Their bayou-saving chariot is a 30-foot barge mottled with rust. A hardtop bimini shades its helm, a lone concession to human comfort, for the barge has no seats. A foot-wide vacuum hose rests on its bow, fastened with duct tape to another massive hose that feeds a containment area below deck.

Early one Thursday not long ago, Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis, both in long-sleeve shirts, pants, and work boots despite the heat, slipped into life vests. Mr. Rivers is wider in girth, and missing a few teeth;Mr. Dennis is lithe and muscled.

Looking every bit the sea captain, Mr. Rivers steered the barge to the edge of the boom, the thick mantle of garbage undulating on his approach. A switch was flipped, a roar filled the air, and, and, guided by Mr. Dennis, the hose began sucking up plastic and Styrofoam like a giant, ravenous Slinky. Mr. Dennis grabbed a rake and hopped down to guide the trash toward the hose’s maw. Dots of sweat appeared on his brow, and dampened the back of his blue button-down.

Every now and then they paused to salvage intact toys — the toy airplane, the football — to give later to neighborhood kids.

Beyond the vacuum’s reach, half a dozen blackbirds picked through the flotsam, while outside the boom, plastic bottles bobbed downstream. Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis position the booms based on currents, but can’t come close to catching all the trash. Though they work eight hours a day, it might take months to patrol the entire 14 miles they’re tasked with cleaning.

The wind shifted, and an odor of rot enveloped the barge.

“Right now, that smell, that’s called bayou potpourri,” Mr. Rivers hollered over the din. Not long after that, a seam where the hose met the barge split open, splattering the deck, with sludgy brown Bayou juice. “She’s feeling nauseous, Trey,” Mr. River called out, , and turned off the vacuum.

Mr. Dennis hopped up on deck, and swiftly mended the crack with several layers of duct tape. An hour or so later, a hatch in the deck began spitting out bits of brown matter flecked with torn up Styrofoam pellets: the containment area was full and needed offloading.

Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

Buffalo Bayou Partnership pulled 2,000 cubic yards of trash — the equivalent of 167 commercial dump truck loads — out of the waterways last year. Along with the efforts of Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis, a second team, usually consisting of people sentenced to community service, uses nets and pickers to clean harder to reach nooks and the bayou’s banks. Mr. Rivers keeps a list of the weirdest things he found: a basketball stand and hoop, multiple couches, bags of shredded money. He used to joke that he’d seen everything but the kitchen sink, until a few years ago when they found one of those, too.

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

An obvious fix would be to stop litter from reaching the bayou in the first place. Mr. Rivers and Mr. Robinson are rooting for a state bottle bill, which would incentivize people to return containers for money. According to data compiled by the Container Recycling Institute, in seven of the 10 states that have bottle bills, beverage container litter has been slashed by as much as 84 percent. “When it has no value, no one cares, and it goes into the ocean,” Mr. Robinson said.

In the meantime, Buffalo Bayou has Mr. Rivers as its champion. He’s posted videos of the trash-choked Bayou online, and appeared in local media along with the Kelly Clarkson Show, where he was interviewed by guest host Jay Leno. He fills the ears of people who take boat tours with the hows and whys of where all the garbage comes from.

On that recent morning, Mr. Rivers and Mr. Dennis took brief stock of their handiwork. Inside the boom, the bayou’s water flowed easily, rid of most of the plastic and Styrofoam, at least for now.

“But don’t worry,” Mr. Rivers said, as he guided the barge upriver, in search for more trash. “There’s more coming.”

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