When Chad Pregracke was a teenager, he spent his summers working as a clammer near his hometown of East Moline, Illinois. Each day he dove down to the Mighty Mississippi’s riverbed and found garbage and junk drifting through the muddy stream. Disgusted at how poorly treated the water was, he spent months calling state agencies about the problem, with no response. Then one day, while watching NASCAR, he was inspired: If sponsors could back a race car team, why couldn’t they support a river cleanup team?
Turns out, they could. Living Lands & Waters, the nonprofit Pregracke founded in 1998, has marshalled 70,000 volunteers to remove more than 7 million pounds of garbage out of 23 of America’s dirtiest waterways, becoming the country’s most successful river cleanup operation.
On a frigid day in early March, Pregracke—dressed in orange waders and a camouflage coat, perched on a pile of garbage—directs a crew of college students as they embark across the icy water, instructing them to retrieve anything they can fit into their shallow-water boats. These boats are crucial to the nonprofit’s success, Pregracke says, as they allow the outfit to go places most other crews cannot access.
Clumps of trash form a solid layer over the water. The volunteers pluck an astonishing number of basketballs, tennis shoes, and cardboard boxes out of the river. They also find rusted cans, oil drums, playground slides, kiddie pools, fire extinguishers, old mattresses, and even a rusty metal bathtub. Each week’s crew collects an average of about 1,200 pounds of garbage. This spring they collectively found more than 300 pairs of abandoned shoes in the waterway.
All that trash is even more appalling, Pregracke says, when you realize 18 million people drink Mississippi River water. Garbage thrown in a storm drain in Minnesota can make its way into the river and travel all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico. (Pregracke has proof: an impressive “message in a bottle” collection, with letters indicating where the bottle entered the river.) Cleaning rivers makes the water less toxic and easier for to communities to filter and drink. It also helps fish, birds, and the entire ecosystem stay healthy.
The volunteers, who hail from all over the country, convened in Memphis, Tennessee as part of LL&W’s “alternative spring break,” devoting their vacation time to cleaning up the Mississippi River. Pregracke tries to make the work as fun as possible. A “disc jockey boat” with booming speakers blasts popular tunes and karaoke all day to keep morale high. Plastic bags of trash are loaded onto the main barge until a separate sorting day, when volunteers sift through the items and send them either to recycling centers or landfills.
The nonprofit recently launched an effort to educate schoolchildren. “Getting the river cleaned and keeping the river cleaned are two different things,” Pregracke says. Teachers bring their students to the barge’s own classroom for hands-on water experiences. Fishermen show students how to hold fish, and staff lead workshops about conservation, water sampling, recycling, watersheds, sustainability, and why rivers are important. Pregracke’s ultimate goal is to enhance communities, and not just by cleaning rivers: LL&W also has projects such as MillionTrees, which distributes more than 140,000 tree saplings to local parks and schools, and a new venture to remove invasive species. The entire operation costs $2 million per year and is funded by a broad array of corporate donations, foundation grants, and private gifts.
Pregracke and his wife, Tammy Becker, live on the group’s barge with ten other staff about nine months a year. Shipping companies allow the barge to hitchhike, bringing it to some of the grimiest rivers in America, including the Anacostia in Washington, D.C., the Ohio, the Illinois, and the Mississippi. Brightly painted with land and seascapes, the barge is a floating statement to all who catch a glimpse of it.
A winner of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, the William E. Simon Prize for Social Entrepreneurship, and 2013 CNN Hero of the Year, Pregracke is gaining recognition nationally for what he says is just grunt work. The good news is that no matter how cold and dirty and exhausting the labor, he finds no shortage of people willing to pitch in and help. “No one likes seeing garbage in their drinking water.”