The Unlikely Environmentalist

How Chad Pregracke went from skater dude to the Mississippi River’s most impassioned caretaker is as odd a story as you’ll ever hear along the banks of the mighty river.

By Adam Hinterthuer

“I didn’t have some grand plan,” Pregracke says. “It was just something that I knew should be done and needed to be done, and nobody was doing it.”

It turns out Pregracke didn’t need a grand plan. He was still working on his first mile of riverfront when boaters began to call the local paper wanting to know who the heck this kid was out on the riverbanks wrestling barrels into his boat and tossing beer cans into trash bags. The first local story got picked up by the Associated Press. That brought Tim Wall from CNN to town and put Pregracke on national television. Anderson Cooper and Time magazine followed, and Pregracke’s movement surged forward.

Since that summer, Pregracke has founded Living Lands and Waters, a nonprofit with an annual budget of $800,000. He has twelve employees to help manage what has become an armada. Three flat-bottomed aluminum boats are used to haul trash from the riverbank to three 100-foot-long barges, where junk is sorted into piles for either recycling or the landfill. A fourth barge resembles a floating dorm and boasts a living room, bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The whole jumble is lashed together, forming a giant raft that’s pushed up and down the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Potomac, Anacostia, and Illinois rivers by a whimsically painted towboat.

Pregracke does his best to make the process fun, but the work his group does is serious. Throughout the last century, industries dumped scrap metal and used barrels into the water, while homeowners avoided disposal fees by tipping tires and refrigerators over the railings of bridges. Even today, every heavy rain flushes trash from city streets throughout the Midwest into the Mississippi floodplain. City garbage collection pretty much stops at the river’s edge.

That’s where Living Lands and Waters comes in. The group docks at various riverside towns and organizes cleanups; on the days they don’t have events to oversee, crew members head out to clean on their own. All told, they’ve hauled in more than four million pounds of garbage. Aside from the obvious aesthetic improvement, this deep cleaning nurtures the health of the river. A tire contains up to five gallons of petroleum, and as it slowly breaks down, that petroleum leaches into the ecosystem. Countless barrels have been removed from the river, still half-filled with toxic oil or other industrial chemicals. The group has cleaned areas where trash literally clogged the water, once again opening bays and backwaters for plants and wildlife.

Pregracke knows that cleaning himself out of a job is unlikely—every new rainstorm brings back at least some of the problem. But he is determined to get communities involved to a point where Living Lands and Waters can “clean ourselves out of an area.” Pregracke’s determination is fueled by his remarkable self-confidence and a passion born of his childhood on the river.

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