Trashbuster

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

Chad Pregracke's attire says it all. He wears a muddy life jacket, muddy boots, muddy pants, muddy shirt and a sweat-stained cap that also happens to be muddy. The reason for the muddy look is that the 27-year-old toils tirelessly along the banks of America's major rivers.

"I pretty much grew up on the river," Pregracke said. "If I wasn't fishing, I was diving for mussels, and if I wasn't doing either of those, I was just goofing off. But I was always at the river."

"The river" was the Mississippi, close to his home in East Moline, Illinois.

He's still almost always near a river, but now he's doing everything he can to make rivers better.

The "Quad Cities" is his home base, but his work takes him up and down the Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio rivers for 11 months of the year. His work is picking up trash, and it's a one-piece-at-a-time occupation. It starts with a refrigerator here, a washing machine there, and tire after tire after tire.

Pregracke began his river cleaning campaign in 1997 by organizing and conducting the largest clean-up in the history of the Mississippi River.

"I just thought, yeah, I'll be like NASCAR and get a bunch of sponsors. It'll be cool," Pregracke said. "And it worked. This barge we're standing on used to be the Marquette barge lines headquarters. Our sponsors have paid for everything."

Pregracke's sponsors include Alcoa, Anheuser-Busch, ADM, Cargill, Caterpillar, the Argosy Foundation, Lafarge, Memco, River Way and Marquette barge lines.

"Results, not rhetoric" is Pregracke's mantra, and so far the results include more than 800 tons of trash removed from the rivers. Ninety percent of the trash he cleans up gets recycled, but the price of scrap metal pays only a small portion of his half-million-dollar-a-year budget. The remainder comes in the form of corporate cash and foundation support.

The funds have allowed the operation to grow to include a reconditioned tugboat, three barges, four work boats and four trucks.

Pregracke calls his barge operation "Living Lands and Waters" to call attention to the rivers' connection to the people along their banks.

Jim Karpowicz of Columbia brought Pregracke and his trash barge here for the first Missouri River clean-up in September, 2001. "It was right after 9/11," said Karpowicz. "People seemed to just want to get out and do something."

About 520 people showed up to haul everything from car bodies to stoves from 35 miles of river banks to load onto Pregracke's barge. They fed off Pregracke's energy, and Missouri River Relief was born.

Now the not-for-profit Missouri River Relief has numerous cleanups scheduled on the river. St. Joseph, Kansas City, Glasgow, Easley, Hartsburg and St. Charles have all hosted or are planning clean-ups with the help of Missouri River Relief. The events consistently attract a crowd who see a challenge in the formidable amounts of trash on the banks of the Big Muddy.

"Communities seem to be looking toward their riverfronts as an asset now," Karpowicz added. "People have bought into Chad's belief that it's not okay to have trash on our rivers."

"For a long time, people just ignored these rivers," Pregracke said. "They didn't see their beauty or the resources they represent. If people spend a day--or just an hour--picking up trash along the banks, then the next time they drive over them on a superhighway bridge, they'll look down and see their work. They'll make a connection."

The corporate and private donations his clean-ups attract also make it possible for Pregracke to pay a crew--mostly college age idealists who like Pregracke's style and don't mind getting dirty--and to make the cleanups a way to teach environmental education.

"The money stinks," says Margaret Abts, a self-proclaimed "trash-picker extraordinaire." With a new biology degree in hand, she looked at the job market and chose Living Lands and Waters. "It's one thing to learn about a river in the classroom," she observed. "It's totally different to live and work on a river."

The crew, which ranges in number from six to eight, works extremely hard, but camaraderie and fun are always apparent. "One river, one mile, one piece of garbage at a time" is their slogan, but they all know they're part of something big.

They live on a barge fitted with a metal building divided into living quarters, a classroom and Pregracke's office. Everyone removes shoes before entering. That keeps mud out of the living area. The classroom hosted a dozen groups of shoeless teachers this spring who came aboard the barge to learn about river systems.

Pregracke provided the teachers with an overview of Living Lands and Waters and set ground rules for the day.

"Rule one - be safe," Pregracke said. "There are trip hazards around the barge. Key word: trip hazards. Remember that, you'll be tested on it later. Rule two: No fun. Absolutely no fun is allowed." The teachers misbehaved and had fun anyway.

Tammy Becker is the Living Lands and Waters education coordinator. She works with Bryan Hopkins of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to get teachers onto the barge for a hands-on approach to river study. The teachers take their new knowledge back to the classroom. When Living Lands and Waters conducts a cleanup in their community, the students are encouraged to participate.

"Kids get so into it," Becker said. "They are really inspiring to the crew."

Becker conducted 10 teacher workshops in the spring of 2003, and more are planned. The workshops include some classroom instruction, but most of the day is spent on the river. Participants get a first-hand look at the attempts to tame the Mighty Mississippi. They also get a chance to see black-crowned night herons, pelicans, shorebirds, a variety of gulls and other river wildlife.

Some of them have the opportunity to meet Chad's brother, Brent Pregracke, a commercial fisherman on the Mississippi. Brent was working an area behind a wing dam on a cool clear day in May when the teachers' boats stopped to admire his catch. He held up a pipe coated with non-native zebra mussels. The non-native zebra mussels threaten to cover native mussel beds, eventually suffocating them.

Teachers admired the variety and beauty of Missouri's native mussels as Brent explained their use in the cultured pearl industry. He talked about other invasive species, like the big-head carp, that compete with native fishes for prime Mississippi River habitat.

When the teachers exhausted their questions, the boats motored to a forested shore where crew member Lisa Hoffmann talked about the importance of bottomland hardwood forests in the river ecosystem. She is using her degree in forestry to lead a Living Lands and Water initiative to replant native hardwood species, particularly nut- and fruit-bearing trees, to provide mast for wildlife.

Chad Pregracke and groups of schoolchildren collected acorns, hickory nuts and hackberries, and shipped them to Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry to grow into seedlings. Funds from Alcoa and the Riverboat Development Authority helped pay for the trees, which will be planted this fall.

Pregracke's drive, coupled with his charisma and outstanding accomplishments, helped win him the prestigious Jefferson Award in 2002. Described as the "Nobel prize for public service," the award also went to Rudolf Giuliani and Bill and Melinda Gates. CNN produced a feature story on him, and articles about him have appeared in Outside, Smithsonian and Time magazines.Pregracke is grateful for the attention because it makes finding sponsors easier and enables him to accomplish even more river clean-ups. But it hasn't changed his practical, "results, not rhetoric" approach.

River politics and rival interests seldom get in his way. "I know there are conflicts out there, man, but I stay out of them," Pregracke said. "My job is just to clean up the river - that's all I care about."

Want to help clean up our rivers?

Step one - Don't litter!

Step two -Don't tolerate litter! Report illegal dumping to help local law enforcement crack down on those who despoil our lands and waters.

Step three - Get involved in river cleanup efforts, such as those held by Stream Teams, Missouri River Relief and Living Lands and Waters.

Missouri River Relief is hosting two cleanups this fall: September 13 in Kansas City, and September 20 in St. Charles. Go to their website for more information.

You can join a local Stream Team or keep up with Chad Pregracke's progress by visiting their websites.

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