Clawing Their Way to the Bottom

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

Deep Impact

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.

It’s literally taken us from boat loads of trash to barge loads.” —John "J.B." Bostrom

“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.


Class Act

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.”

Taking Inventory

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.

Common ItemsUncommon ItemsRare Items
Item# RetrievedItem# RetrievedItem# Retrieved
Bags of Trash98,402Stoves192Bath Tubs28
Tires73,374BBQ Grills168Portable Toilets25
Barge Line19,960Construction Cones119Tractors20
55-Gallon Drums6,301Computer Monitors117Car Engines15
5-Gallon Buckets3,622Bicycles114Mannequin Parts14
Propane Tanks1,501Toilets110Hot Tubs13
Chairs1,218Freezers109Prosthetic Limbs13
Refrigerators981Car Batteries108Cars/Trucks/Vans12
Milk Crates801Bowling Balls104Motorcycles12
Toy Dolls621Mattresses101Jet Skis7
Gas Tanks and Cans448Messages in Bottles77Outboard Engines7
Coolers379Boats74Bags of Police Riot Gear6
Trash Cans379Air Conditioners70Pianos4
Buoys313Dishwashers69Sunken Barges3
Hot Water Heaters307250-Gallon Drums64Campers3
Duck Decoys264Couches/Recliners59School Bus Top1
Televisions254Shopping Carts58Ronald McDonald Shoe1
Life Jackets246Lawn Mowers57Electric Guitar1
Washing Machines223Big Wheels55Combine Harvester1

Dive In

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.



Clawing Their Way to the Bottom


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