BY NINA BENJAMIN
Pulling two million pounds of trash out of our nation’s waterways hasn’t deterred Chad Pregracke, who organizes river cleanups every year through his foundation, Living Lands and Waters. Photo ©Greg Boll.
Lately I’ve been thinking about adopting. I know, it’s a big responsibility for a young, single college student like me, but I think it could be quite rewarding. The only question is, do I want one or two? Miles, that is. Of the Mississippi River. It’s all part of Adopt-A-River Mile, one of the many programs run by Living Lands and Waters, a non-profit organization founded in 1998 by Chad Pregracke.
Chad, considered by many to be a hometown hero, got the idea for Living Lands and Waters when he was 17. The East Moline, Illinois-based organization is dedicated to protecting the environment and preserving our country’s waterways, focusing mainly on the Mississippi River, but also working on the Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and Potomac Rivers. By holding community river cleanups in a nine-state area, hosting educational workshops and Riverbottom Restoration projects, and establishing the Adopt-A-River Mile program, Chad and his hard-working team are aiming to raise environmental awareness and to inspire everyone to take pride in their natural surroundings by keeping them pristine.
Growing up, Chad spent his summers on the Mississippi River working as a commercial shell diver, a commercial fisherman, and a barge hand. While working, he noticed that the river was full of garbage and decided to do something about the deterioration. When his requests for government funding to clean up the shoreline trash were turned down at first, he began searching for private sponsors.
Chad told me how it all started when I caught up with him this August. “I saw a NASCAR race on TV and it gave me the idea to get a sponsor,” he said. “I got one small sponsor in 1997 and I’ve been working ever since; I haven’t even looked back.” Since then, Living Lands and Waters has grown into a $500,000 operation boasting 12 full-time employees, over 60 sponsors (including Honda, Whole Foods, and musician Ben Harper), and a fleet of barges, tugboats, and work trucks.
Since the Iowa Source last spoke to Chad in 2003, he and his crew have kept busy with both regular and special projects. Besides completing dozens of community cleanups, which resulted in the removal of hundreds of tons of garbage from the water, the Living Lands and Waters team also played a major role in the rehabilitation of Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
The aftermath of the brutal hurricane was too much for the crew to witness without assisting. So they cancelled the rest of their fall 2005 cleanup schedule, raised $60,000 in donated materials such as drywall, plywood, and roofing supplies, and headed down south with four full barges. What was supposed to be a 30-day stint turned into nine weeks of installing water and septic systems, removing trees from people’s houses, and gutting homes while wearing sweltering Tyvec suits and respirators. The 18-man team’s presence was a glimmer of hope to residents who had lost everything. By the time the Living Lands and Waters crew departed, they had helped more than 70 families.
“The whole idea wasn’t to save the world down there,” Chad said, “It was to have a big impact on those we encountered, and I think it was a total success. . . . It was really hot, miserable work, but it was the best work we’ve ever done.” In a letter posted on the Living Lands and Waters website from November 2005, Louisiana resident Sarah Mouw wrote to Chad and his fellow workers: “You were the first step in a rebuilding process that I never believed possible. . . . I can’t imagine facing my life without your incredible hard work and your most genuine expression of humanity and good will.”
After returning from the devastation, Chad continued his ongoing projects with Living Lands and Waters and started working on a book with fellow Katrina helper Jeff Barrow. From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers was published in April 2007 and tells the story of Chad’s upbringing and rise to fame. He has been granted several distinguished awards, including an honorary doctorate for his work in education and the environment from St. Ambrose University. He has also been featured on CNN, NPR, and all the major network news channels, and in dozens of magazines such as Smithsonian, National Geographic, and LIFE.
What’s next for this infectiously optimistic go-getter? When I asked him if he wanted to do more disaster relief, he replied that if he was needed in that area, he would help, but it wouldn’t ever be his main focus. “I don’t want to get into disaster relief because I don’t want any more disasters,” he explained. “You know what I’m sayin’?” In regard to the recent Minnesota bridge collapse, Chad said that he offered his barges, which are high in demand, for use.
The next project Chad is excited about starting is a nursery. He plans to grow a million hardwood trees at a hog plant in Beardstown, Illinois, in the next four or five years. Using manure and its by-products as fertilizer, he hopes to have 100,000 trees planted this year, and 300,000 each of the following three years.
This river restoration guru has been at it for nearly a decade now. I wondered, if after years of grueling physical labor and daily exposure to widespread disregard toward the environment, does he look forward to a major career change in his future? “No, I really enjoy the work I do,” Chad said, “There are so many aspects to it—dealing with all the responses, waking up and being on the river every day—I like it all.” He also explains that, though he is constantly exposed to man-made messes (for example, regularly hauling things like washing machines, tires, and refrigerators out of the river), he is not one to get discouraged. He and his tight-knit crew of workers just set out every morning to do their work, keep a positive attitude, and hopefully set an example along the way.
It is rare to encounter an individual who, from nothing but one little spark of inspiration, can have such a huge impact. I asked Chad how he pushed past the mental barrier that so many young people have, the intimidation or discouragement of knowing they’re just one person against the world. He urged, “Never take no for an answer. Keep persisting and be dedicated. . . . It’s gonna be tough, and getting started is the hardest part, but once you get going, everything builds on momentum.”
The success gained by Living Lands and Waters is due not only to Chad’s tenacity and sincere concern for the environment, but also to the thousands of volunteers who have donated countless hours to help Chad realize his vision. If you would like to join the campaign, please check out the Living Lands and Waters website to see when the next cleanup near you will take place. Every set of rubber-gloved hands helps.
And next time you get the itch to shop, save some gas by heading to your computer instead of the mall. Go to livinglandsandwaters.org and adopt yourself a mile (or five) of the Mississippi River—clean water never goes out of style.