How one non-profit is cleaning up America's rivers
Industrial Strength Cleanup
It’s 8:30 on a damp Wednesday morning in Tell City, Ind. The steady current of the Ohio River softly laps against the 150-ft. house barge where Chad Pregracke rallies his crew of seven. His enthusiasm packs a more potent punch than the caffeine in the coffee mugs that his team huddles around. It quickly becomes evident his passion for cleaning up America’s rivers has only flourished in the past 17 years since he founded Living Lands & Waters.
“I just sort of started it out of necessity because that’s what I had to do to continue the mission of cleaning up.” Pregracke remains as humble as his beginnings, where as a 15-year-old in East Moline, Ill., he worked as?a?shell diver on the Mississippi. It was during his long days submerged in the murky water that he started to notice the large amounts of trash. “I didn’t think that the Mississippi River should be treated like that so when I was a teenager I started out on the quest to make the change and make it a cleaner river.” It was a simple mission that has sparked massive results. With help of 13 full-time staff members and more than 94,000 volunteers, Living Lands & Waters has removed 9 million pounds of trash from 23 rivers in 20 states.
The Living Lands & Waters mission is simple:
- To aid in the protection, preservation and restoration of the natural environment of the nation’s major rivers and their watersheds
- To expand awareness of environmental issues and responsibility encompassing the rivers
- To create a desire and an opportunity for stewardship and responsibility for cleaner river environments
Though their hard work can go unnoticed, their presence along the riverbank is impossible to miss. In addition to the two 150-ft. barges and accompanying tugboats, the crew recently welcomed a John Deere 210G Excavator. “It’s literally taken us from boat loads of trash to barge loads,” says veteran Living Lands & Waters crewmember, John “J.B.” Bostrom. He is one of the select members who are being trained to run the excavator by John Deere operator Randy McClintock. On this particular day, McClintock is behind the helm collecting various debris from the shoreline as Bostrom acts as the liaison between the tugboat captain and the scout who is a few hundred yards ahead.
“What used to take at least two people almost an hour now takes the excavator about 10 seconds,” Bostrom explains as McClintock releases a 55-gallon drum from the grapple of the excavator. Pregracke shares Bostrom’s excitement, “That’s our future!” he exclaims as he points to the excavator behind him. “Typically in a year, we’re getting between 300,000 to 500,000 pounds but that’s all hand dug, now we think with the excavator, we’ll do a minimum of a million pounds of trash out of America’s rivers for many years to come.”
Quick facts about
Living Lands & Waters
River cleanups have been completed to date
Educational workshops have been hosted since 2011
Trees have been planted through the MillionTrees Project
Current Project: Ohio River
In August 2015, the Living Lands & Waters team set a goal of removing 1 million pounds of trash from the Ohio River. With the excavator's help, the team is on track to achieve that goal by the end of Spring 2016. So far, they've removed 78,034 pounds of trash and 509 tires, as well as larger objects like an old Studebaker truck, two washing machines and a small fiberglass boat.
Aboard the house barge the floating classroom is buzzing with activity. A class from a local middle school has been divided into teams and work together as Meghan Elgan and Mike Coyne-Logan guide a hands-on lab that focuses on the effects of invasive species and non-native plants. “Getting the river clean and keeping it clean are two different things, so you gotta mix education in with it,” Pregracke explains as he discusses the importance of adding ecological restoration workshops and summer camps to Living Lands & Waters. Schools throughout the communities along the rivers can choose from multiple lessons that fit their curriculum. “I think exposing students to the problem is a long-term, big step in the right direction towards a cleaner river.”
While tires and 55-gallon drums are among the most common items pulled from the rivers, more surprising items include hot tubs, prosthetic limbs and even a Ronald McDonald shoe.
What We Found
Check out some of the different objects the Living Lands & Waters team has extracted from the rivers over the years.
What We Found
Want to get involved? There are multiple events and activities hosted by Living Lands & Waters every year.
- Adopt-A-River Mile
- Alternative Spring Break
- Community Clean Ups
- Great Mississippi River Clean Up
- Invasive Species Removal
- MillionTrees Project
- Recycle Like a Rockstar
- Agriculture Leadership Institute
- Barge Party
- School Workshops
For more information check out LivingLandsandWaters.org.