A River Runs Through Him

September 8, 2008
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EAST MOLINE, Ill. - Chad Pregracke (pronounced Pre-grack-ee) spent his younger years filled with experiences on the Mississippi. But it was in 1997, at the age of 22, that he kick-started his “cleaning-up-the-river” crusade.

Pregracke quickly won the hearts of millions through media coverage of his stubborn insistence that one person really can make a difference. And he’s proven it’s so. He is joined today by an equally devoted team of 10 employees and armies of volunteers, all eager to help wherever they toss their anchor.

Corporate sponsorships sustain their work, though there’s never enough because, as far as the eye can see, there are mountains of filth and debris to attend to. In the 10 years since Pregracke formed Living Lands & Waters (LL&W), the organization and its thousands of dedicated volunteers have collected more than 1,500 tons of garbage from the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Potomac, and Illinois rivers, among others. (See related feature article “Rescuers Receive All the Comforts of Home” in this issue.)

ALL IN A DAY'S WORK

While attending high school and college, Pregracke worked as a commercial shell diver, a commercial fisherman, and barge hand during the summers. He quickly saw that river conditions were getting worse due to the accumulation of trash.

LL&W hosts community river cleanups each year with the assistance of local volunteers of all ages. Most community cleanups last for about four hours, typically beginning around 9 a.m. The day begins with a discussion about the need for safety during cleanup. Then, volunteers load into the work boats piloted by an LL&W crew and head out to pre-designated garbage sites along the shorelines and islands of the river. Then the search for garbage is on.

With trash bags and shovels in hand, volunteers scour the area in search of plastic bottles, barrels, tires, appliances, and whatever else doesn’t belong there. They drag, carry, and haul the garbage to a central point along the shoreline. When the site is clean (and every volunteer is suitably filthy), everyone loads back into the boats and heads back to the meeting site to enjoy snacks and beverages.

Surprisingly, Pregracke doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist.

“I may be a conservationist, if anything,” he said. “I don’t like the label of environmentalist because it makes me seem different. I’m just a regular guy. What I really hope for is for people to remember that anyone - anyone - can make a difference.”

AN ONGOING PROJECT

Another LL&W project is the Riverbottom Restoration Project, managed by Kristen Ellis.

“It’s another way for us to improve our nation’s big rivers,” she said. “Over the years, a decline in riverbottom hardwoods became recognizable.”

According to Ellis, the bottomland forest ecosystem is now lacking the diversity of nut- and fruit- baring trees. Seed from native hardwoods, such as oaks and hickories, is important to provide food and habitat for wildlife.

“Natives trees also tend to be more tolerable to flood and drought,” she added. “That’s why it’s important for us to replenish the bottomlands with native hardwoods.”

Other key programs include their Adopt-A-River Mile, another successful shoreline reclamation effort, and workshops with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

For more regarding Living Lands & Waters, go to www.livinglandsandwaters.org.

Publication date: 09/08/2008

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