Reviewing his multiple blogs and social media profiles, still archived online after his death in 2016, two things about Rob Nykvist are clear: First, he was an environmentalist.
His journal entries, photos and videos, posted between 2011 and 2016, may be the best record of the extent of Mobile’s litter problem during a period when Nykvist could frequently be seen kayaking through local waterways or biking along roads, documenting the plague of litter polluting Dog River and the Mobile Bay watershed.
Another thing about Rob Nykvist — he was angry. On the same blogs, he often heaped misdirected blame upon product manufacturers, business owners, nonprofit agencies, elected officials and the Black community. He’d never pick up litter himself, but he was quick to criticize other “pigs” — Black, White, Hispanic and otherwise —who left it behind.
Sometimes, he’d visit a voluntary litter cleanup site the day after a cleanup, to point out any litter the volunteers may have missed. He took aim at Mardi Gras, the city’s most sacred celebration, for the amount of waste it produces. He documented how popular throws such as beads, cups and inflatables often end up in drainage ditches and stay there for years after a parade.
In occasional phone calls to the offices of this newspaper, Nykvist would complain about what he believed was a lack of coverage on the issue and at least once, he accused Lagniappe of being part of the problem.
Nevertheless, his stark photos of plastic and styrofoam litter choking area streams caught everyone’s attention, while his videos of torrents of trash floating down Dog River after heavy summer storms went viral locally.
Casi Callaway, the former Mobile Baykeeper of 23 years who accepted a job as the city of Mobile’s first “chief resilience officer” in April, said she met Nykvist during volunteer training for Baykeeper’s “muddy water watch” program sometime in 2010 or 2011. There, participants were taught to follow runoff and siltation upstream to discover and report the source.
“What he did, shortly after that training, was pull a kayak underneath a bridge during a rainstorm and took video of Dog River,” Callway said.
Debi Foster, the former executive director of Dog River Clearwater Revival (DRCR), said Nykvist was a former board member and perhaps the group’s most passionate anti-litter advocate.
“He was tired of excuses and frustrated with a lack of attention to the matter,” she said. “I don’t think any of us believed the city was going to actually do anything about it, so Rob took to doing billboards or advertisements, and Facebook had just become popular, so he was constantly posting what we dubbed the ‘Wall of Shame’ and it was getting shared by everyone.”
The city of Mobile was a frequent target, with Nykvist posting pictures of ditches that wouldn’t drain, trash cans in public parks that were overflowing, stormwater inlets crumbling to pieces and rights of way dotted with litter. Not everyone thought highly of Nykvists’ efforts, though.
People attempting to sell homes or real estate along Dog River suddenly had buyers concerned about the pollution, Foster said, and property values were threatened.
“In some ways [Nykvist’s posts] were problematic,” she said. “The general public thought Dog River had become so polluted it was like the Hudson River, it couldn’t be saved.”
About that time, in the final years of the Sam Jones administration, DRCR filed a notice of intent to sue the city over the litter problem. In 2013, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) picked up the complaint, suing the city for violations of the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act and for failing to meet certain obligations under its 2012 stormwater management plan (MS4).
In early 2014, just after Sandy Stimpson took office in his first term, the city cut ties with its MS4 contractor of 16 years and changed course. By the end of the year, it had a new stormwater management plan and had entered into a consent decree with ADEM agreeing to pay a fine of $135,000, to purchase one or more litter boats, and to purchase and install a large litter trap on a tributary to Dog River.
By 2016, both solutions had been implemented, but Nykvist didn’t let up.
“Despite a $660,000 Bandalong litter trap installation in Eslava Creek, the creek remains polluted with trash both upstream and downstream,” he posted in January 2016, alongside pictures of litter in the water, the bow of his kayak in the foreground.
In April, he claimed he had never seen the litter boats the city allegedly deployed.
“If the city has a litter removal boat, the crew must be on vacation seven days a week or they must be spending most of their time playing on their phone or fishing instead of removing trash,” he wrote. “I have never seen a litter removal boat and all the tributaries in Dog River remain polluted with trash.”
Sometime that summer, Foster said Nykvist knocked on her door.
“I cried the day he came to the house and told me he knew he was dying and he wanted to donate all his stuff to DRCR,” Foster said. “He was still frustrated and he was still angry. I felt so terrible for him. But thanks to Rob, the attention really got strong.”
Nykvist, 59, died of lung cancer in November 2016.
BEFORE AND AFTER
Foster, who has since stepped down as DRCR’s executive director, said the group maintained pressure on the city after Nykvist’s death and to its credit, the city has made strides. The Bandalong trap was modified and adjusted to adapt to Eslava Creek’s hydrology. Large sources of litter were identified and new ordinances were adopted to force property owners into compliance and impose fines for noncompliance. Employees were trained to report and remove litter, and a contract was signed with a private company for full time litter removal from waterways. “Marine debris interceptors” have been installed in some stormwater drains downtown to capture Mardi Gras litter and the city engaged its GIS department to design an app to map and maintain storm drains.
“When we first started, we were finding litter that had been in the creek for decades,” said Don Bates, owner of Osprey Initiative, as he steered a litter removal boat around Dog River last month. “There was a lot of storm-related litter caught in oxbows and gyres, and some legacy litter a foot deep in drainage ditches.”
Bates never knew Nykvist, but knew of him, and has seen his videos. Bates was an engineer before he left a job to pursue litter clean-up full time. Beginning with its contract in Mobile, Osprey Initiative now operates in nine states.
In addition to picking up the voluminous “legacy litter,” Bates and his team also invented a series of litter traps to remove floating debris from upstream of the Bandalong and from other known sources. Today, they spend three days per week on the water cleaning up hotspots, and Bates said he’s been complimented on the improvements.
“When we first started working here, it was litter on top of litter,” he said. “But once you remove that legacy litter, if we stay on it, we can keep it relatively clean.”
Now, Bates said, the goal is to move further and further upstream.
“The city has been great at turning us loose to do our piece of it, but the vision is pretty strong right now,” he said. “Nobody is claiming victory at all, it’s still a fight, but we keep moving the scrimmage line up and up.”
Indeed, during visits to at least a dozen litter hotspots depicted in Nykvist’s blogs from years ago, only a couple still had a notable amount of litter. While it appears to have been largely removed from the surface of area waterways, it remains a problem on land, and that is where the city intends to focus its latest efforts.
In its 2020 MS4 annual report, the city reported 36.8 cubic yards of litter removed from the Bandalong, 1,051 municipal offense tickets issued, and 3,548 bags of litter removed from the rights of way. The city-operated litter boats proved ineffective, and the city turned the work over to the Osprey Initiative.
In July, Stimpson announced the 2022 budget would include funding for six new positions on the land-based litter patrol, and a new emphasis on education.
“We have three targets: schools, business and city employees,” Callaway said of the effort. “The message is to stop walking over litter and saying it’s someone else’s problem. We’re really trying to educate people to take ownership of that themselves. Pick up that one piece of trash or a few pieces of trash, but call somebody when it’s more than that.”
While she’s supportive of the city’s efforts, Foster said DRCR hopes it will incorporate most, if not all, of the organization’s Comprehensive Litter Abatement Plan published earlier this year. The plan was paid for with a $328,101 federal grant, and includes recommendations for reducing litter, data gathering and reporting, increasing awareness, strengthening regulations, and funding and organizing anti-litter efforts.
“Mobile really does seem to have some cutting edge programs, although they’ve just happened in the last six to eight years and we still have a long way to go,” Foster said. “Education will be tough. There are myriad causes of litter and although the ultimate goal is to stop people from littering, that won’t happen. We still have smokers, we still have people not wearing seatbelts, people will still choose to do bad things. But we have made an impact.”
Stimpson and other officials are hoping that along with improved access, local waterways begin to attract more visitors and become more of an asset for the entire community.
“What we’re seeing everywhere we are working right now is that people want their urban waters to be an asset,” Bates said. “You shouldn’t have to go to the beach once a year to see nature when it’s right in our backyard.”
But when Aven Warner looks in her backyard, all she sees is more trash. Like Nykvist, the resident of Dauphin Island Parkway said she frequently reports excessive litter to the city. But unlike Nykvist, Warner also cleans it up. In fact, she’s known around her neighborhood as “The Tire Queen,” because she can often be seen gathering discarded tires from vacant lots or drainage ditches and hauling them to a recycling facility.
“It’s gotten better in Dog River and the creeks, but out here, if you pick up trash one day, the very next day there’s more on the side of the road,” she said. “It all comes down to the way you were raised I guess.”
With the city’s recent acquisitions of waterfront park property at the Aeroplex at Brookley and along Perch Creek, Warner can envision the bigger plan to create an outdoor trail from Langan Park all the way to Dog River. But it’s hard for her to ignore the litter along the way.
“It hasn’t gotten any better in my neighborhood, as far as I can tell,” she said.
Meanwhile, Nykvist may be gone, but he’s not forgotten.
“Rob was sort of a crusty personality, but that’s because he was intelligent and he saw a problem that was bigger than him and nobody seemed interested in solving it,” Warner said. “But he was instrumental.”
Similarly, Callaway said she had an appreciation for Nykvist, even though he could be abrasive.
“He was not my favorite human being, he was not ‘Mr. Joy,’” Callaway said. “He raised awareness about a problem, and then handed it to us to solve. He did not carry trash bags with them. He did not clean up litter. He just showed us where it was. He cussed me sometimes and then hugged me sometimes. But we have to give him credit for shining a spotlight on a problem that we were turning our back on as a community. And we are dealing with it.”