Chad Pregracke: Rescuing Our Rivers

One of the most powerful forces of nature, the river, has been revered the world over since ancient times, says ‘HelpSaveNature.com.’ These massive freshwater bodies have been called ‘the sources of life,’ and some of the most advanced civilizations of the world have originated and flourished on the banks of major rivers. Apart from being sources of sustenance, rivers have also been major hubs of economies. Their ease of transportation has facilitated mass mobility and trade and led to incalculable wealth accumulation.

Clearly, this has been the case with America’s second longest river with the second largest drainage basin, the prodigious Mississippi River.

The Noble Mississippi

“The Mississippi River carries the mud of thirty states and two provinces 2,000 miles south to the delta and deposits 500 million tons of it there every year. The business of the Mississippi, which it will accomplish in time, is to methodically transport all of Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico.” – Charles Kuralt              

From the time of Native Americans to the present, the “business” of the river has also been as one of the world’s most important commercial waterways, and one of North America’s great migration routes for both birds and fishes. It powers a meaningful percentage of the nation’s economy from its heartland location and provides leisure for the over 12 million people living near its banks and tourists throughout the world.

Twainquotes.com – Postcard from the R. Kent Rasmussen collection

From his own astute observation point down river, renowned 19thcentury American author, Mark Twain, wrote that no commission of men could ever “tame that lawless stream, cannot curb or confine it, cannot say to it, ‘Go here,’ or ‘Go there,’ and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it had sentenced; cannot bar it’s path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at.”

While Twain knew well of what he spoke, he could never have imagined that his fellow man would devise a way to nearly choke the river to death. Our story is about a noble man as prodigious as the river who has devoted his life to loosening man’s deadly grip.

An Ecological Calamity

Chad Pregracke grew up on the shores of the Mississippi River in East Moline, Illinois, not too far south of its headwaters. He spent most of his youth in, on, and around the river, so pieces of him, as Kuralt supposed, have certainly been deposited 2320 miles to the south in the river’s delta. With every new encounter, Pregracke’s love for the river filled his heart the way a pounding rain would swell the waterway’s banks.

By 1992, 17-year-old Pregracke recognized that the river system was suffering the malady of decades of America’s ‘throw away consumerism’ and other forms of pollution, especially chemicals from agricultural and industrial runoff. He saw debris and chemical sludge floating from perspectives both above and below the river’s surface and with his family’s enthusiastic support, felt compelled to take action. He started with calling various government agencies to report the pollution, innocently expecting them to respond.

As you can imagine, the only tangible result of his early efforts was a growing frustration with the ineffective and heartless lack of response. Year-after-year, he made the calls and pleaded his case yet the problem only worsened. When he saw top ten lists of the most polluted rivers on earth, he was horrified to see his beloved river prominently featured. He became more serious and decided to do something about it himself.

But with the massive size of the problem, what could one young man possibly do? The answer was to find other people equally disgusted and motivated to make a difference, educate them, leverage each other’s energy and finances, and get to work. And that’s just what this prodigious man did.

Living Lands & Waters

What started as ‘one river, one piece of garbage at a time,’ soon became Pregracke’s life’s purpose when in 1998 he established ‘Living Lands & Waters,’ a 501 (c)(3) environmental organization. LL&W’s stated mission is three-fold:

  • To aid in the protection, preservation and restoration of the natural environment of the nations’ major rivers and their watersheds.
  • To expand awareness of environmental issues and responsibility encompassing the river.
  • To create a desire and an opportunity for stewardship and responsibility for a cleaner river environment.

In the past two decades his noble organization has grown to become the only “industrial strength” river cleanup organization like it in the world. Spending up to nine months a year living and traveling on the barge, the Living Lands & Waters crew hosts river cleanups, watershed conservation initiatives, workshops, tree plantings and other key conservation efforts.

Today, the organization has grown to include a full staff and fleet of equipment. The crew averages nine states a year along the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio Rivers, as well as many of their tributaries. With the help of over 100,000 volunteers, they’ve removed 10 million pounds of trash from 24 U.S. rivers in 21 states.

Along the way, Pregracke has been expanding the organization’s mission to include Student Educational WorkshopsThe MillionTrees ProjectAdopt-a-River MileInvasive Species Removal and The Great Mississippi River Cleanup. More details on each of these worthy projects can be found at livinglandsandwaters.org.

The Noble Man

Chad Pregracke’s greatest strength has been to inspire and organize others to join him in doing God’s work here on earth. He does it with charisma, leadership and his own work ethic, including getting down in the muck with colleagues and pulling out the debris himself. As the ‘green movement’ in America has continued to gather steam, such corporate heavyweights as Anheuser Busch, ADM, Cargill, Caterpillar, Deere, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, FedEx, and many others, have followed LL&W’s imprints into the river’s muddy banks to sponsor cleanups and other programs.

Pregracke’s benevolent efforts have earned many awards and honors over the years, most notably, the Jefferson Award for Public Service (America’s version of the Nobel Prize) in June 2002. He accepted this award from First Lady Laura Bush in the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.. In 2013, he was named CNN’s Hero of the Year.

He has also authored the book, From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers. The Amazon website’s review says, “This is the story of his personal triumph as an advocate for America’s rivers. Chad measures success in tons of garbage removed and thousands of people with a new stake in—and a new understanding of—the river environment.”

“But From the Bottom Up is much more than that,” the review continues, “it is a first-person chronicle of Chad’s own life along the Mississippi featuring colorful characters, a near-death experience, a haunted swamp, and other flourishes worthy of a modern Mark Twain; and a fascinating portrait of the river itself which explores everything from the natural history of mussels and catfish to Indian lore to the key role of the Mississippi in our country’s history.”

The Tide is Turning

“It is said that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic littering our oceans,” says Meghan Elgan of LL&W, “and up to 80% of that debris started off on land.” Thus, much of the pollution has traveled from human hands into river systems before eventually arriving in our oceans, especially in the Far East. This is indeed a shameful legacy.

The good news is the tide appears to be turning. There are more and more young people across America and the world just like Chad Pregracke who are stepping up and saying, “enough is enough, we’re better than this.” LL&W’s crew and volunteers, and other such heroes, are working diligently to reverse the damage.

Tulane’s award-winning finance professor, Peter Ricchiuti, said in a recent Throomers feature that “our younger generation has a strong work ethic, is smarter than in the past, and much more community-minded. It’s the best generation yet and our future is in very good hands.”

There’s also the 24-year-old Dutch inventor, Boyan Slat, with his ambitious ‘Ocean Cleanup’ project, and many others across the globe. I see such efforts right here in my own community of South Florida. Citizens have become fed up with big government and big industry seemingly conspiring to pollute our beloved estuaries and oceans and doing little to answer the citizens’ outrage (ask Chad Pregracke about that). Finally, local elections are being fought and decided on the singular issue of solving the decades-old Lake Okeechobee pollution calamity.

So the message is clear, though the water is murky. No one is going to do this for us, especially our government agencies. It will depend on a continuing grassroots effort, every citizen raising our awareness and doing our part, guided by inspiring leaders just like Chad Pregracke.

We toast 2019 and beyond by raising a glass of cool, clear water in honor of Chad and other such noble heroes of our living lands and waters.