When we think of the Mississippi River the first things that come to mind are probably barge traffic and Tom Sawyer, Dead Zones and Huck Finn. What we probably don’t think of is the U.S.’s longest river as a source of drinking water. Sure, it is integral in the transportation system that moves farm goods and helps keep Walmart shelves filled. We also know that the mighty river is very good at delivering pesticides, fertilizers and other pollution downriver from big cities and farm fields. But drink the muddy waters of the Mississippi? Fat chance.
Truth is, 18 million people who live along its 2,350 miles depend on the Mississippi for more than recreation and irrigation.
No one understands the relationship between commerce, the environment, and the need to keep the Mississippi River clean for future generations better than Chad Pregracke, who has made the river both his home and his work for more than the past two decades. And he’s only 38-years-old.
Growing up on the Illinois side of the river, the son of educators and “river enthusiasts,” Pregracke and his brother were born river rats, with easy access to both the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Summer jobs were being a barge hand, a commercial fisherman, or even shell diver (much of the world’s cultured pearls originate from shells taken off the bottom of the Mississippi).
It wasn’t hard for a 17-year-old to see just how badly polluted and trashed the river system was. Why would a teenager decide to tackle a problem his elders felt comfortable ignoring? Rather than ignore it, Chad started badgering local government agencies to do a better job.
“Living and working on the river, I witnessed tons of unsightly and toxic trash along its banks, and decided I had to do something about it,” Pregracke tells TakePart. “I called state officials to try to get funding to help with my river cleanup efforts and for four years, all I heard was ‘Who are you, kid? What garbage? No, we don’t have any money.’ After countless rejections, I was able to convince one sponsor to support me in 1997, and I worked alone for a year.”
In 1998, at 23, he founded Living Lands & Waters, a nonprofit aimed at helping to clean up the Mississippi. Success—and a lot of good press and public recognition—came his way.
Today the organization is well-funded, employs a full-time staff, owns more than a dozen different boats and every year works the banks of the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers. Since its inception, more than 60,000 volunteers have collected over six million pounds of debris.
“It has grown to be the only ‘industrial strength’ river cleanup organization like it in the world. For up to nine months a year, our eight-to-ten-member crew lives aboard a house barge, traveling from town to town hosting river cleanups, workshops, and tree plantings. With the backing of hundreds of supporters and sponsors, we have been able to host over 600 cleanups in 17 states along 18 rivers. Together we have removed millions of pounds of garbage, including 4,000- 55-gallon barrels, 1,000 refrigerators, 78,000 tires—the list goes on and on.”
For three weeks this March LW&W is hosting an Alternative Spring Break program, where hundreds of college students from all over the country will spend their spring breaks in Memphis, helping Chad and his team. Recently, TakePart spoke with Chad about his inspiration and motivation for the new kind of spring break.
TakePart: How would you define the progress you’ve made over the years?
Chad Pregracke: I would define it by the number of pounds of garbage we have pulled out, the number of people who have helped and the number of cleanups we have held.
The follow-up being, can you see a change...or does the problem continue to grow?
There has been such a noticeable difference in many of the places we work. What is great is that it’s not just myself seeing the difference; it is a lot of people that use the river who also have noticed the difference: recreational boaters, fisherman, tugboat captains, canoeists, etc. These people have noticed the impact and that our efforts have been sustained. This change has allowed us to expand our efforts to new places where there is a greater need.
What inspired the spring break program and what feedback have you gotten?
I am part of the National Geographic Speakers Bureau, and many years ago I went and spoke at a college about 40 miles south of Atlanta and just off the cuff I asked if any of the students wanted to help out, and I told them, “We would be happy to have you. We need all the help we can get.” A month later, these students showed up and it went really well. After that I thought to myself, if it worked for one school, it would probably work for many, and it has grown from there.
Can you imagine this growing to other rivers, other coastlines, similarly pitching to spring breakers?
I certainly can. We have done over 600 cleanups in 18 states along 17 rivers. We have noticed a lot of college students continuing to come out from all over the country. This year we have students from 21 different colleges coming to Memphis to help out over their spring break; which is way more than we have had in past years.