Chad Pregracke is pumped. He’s pumped about how much people care about America’s lakes, rivers and streams. And he’s pumped about the potential of the students gathered to hear his speech at the University of Illinois at Springfield on Tuesday evening.
Chad Pregracke is pumped.
He’s pumped about how much people care about America’s lakes, rivers and streams.
And he’s pumped about the potential of the students gathered to hear his speech at the University of Illinois at Springfield on Tuesday evening.
“Whatever you want to do is feasible,” he says. “Anything is possible.”
He should know.
Pregracke is the founder of Living Lands & Waters, a nonprofit group based in Moline, Ill., that is removing trash from the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
He started picking up trash along the Mississippi River, where he grew up in 1997, with no money, no help and no idea where to start. He had spent his summers scouring the bottom of the river for mussels, and tried his hand at commercial fishing after dropping out of college.
“My parents were pumped that I dropped out,” he says in his self-effacing manner.
With a shrug, he shared one bit of wisdom with the students who filled the Brookens Auditorium.
“One, don’t drop out of college,” he says. “And two, don’t drop out to become a commercial fisherman — it’s probably not going to work out.”
At first, he just started picking up trash that was spoiling the river where he lived and worked.
“It was simple to me,” he says. “There was all this garbage, and I knew what I wanted to do.”
Early on, he struck out in his attempts to interest potential donors.
Then he was able to arrange a meeting with Alcoa Aluminum, where he was given a few short minutes to communicate why this project was so important.
“It’s a natural treasure,” he says of the Mississippi River. “It’s a symbol of the nation, my backyard, and I want to clean it up.”
With $8,400 in hand to pay his expenses for a year, Pregracke tried to get others to contribute. “It took a lot of no’s to get a yes.”
But soon, all that effort to clean up the river started to attract attention from the news media. Pregracke’s parents made him call the reporters back.
Still, he wasn’t sure why they were interested.
“Cool, I’ll pick you up at the airport and we’ll go out and pick up some garbage,” he told CNN.
Pregracke finally started to get some traction on the water. He added a barge and a small bridge-building boat to help push it (downstream, mostly).
He started Living Lands and Waters and added a crew to help him with cleanups. The organization now offers educational programs, especially for teachers. Also offered are alternative spring breaks during which students can spend their time off making a difference.
The group is planting trees grown at a tree nursery in Beardstown. Community cleanups are sponsored to involve others — at least for a day or two. And Pregracke says cleaning up after catastrophic flooding is another recently added mission.
“It’s kind of like being in a band,” he says of life on the barge away from home. “Instead of a tour bus that goes 70, our barge goes 3 (miles per hour).”
Pregracke says the initial effort to clean up the Mississippi River from St. Louis to Guttenburg, Iowa (an area he settled on randomly), has spread to include the Illinois River, Ohio River and others.
Living Lands and Waters helped with the cleanup of Plum Island at Starved Rock State Park. The island is a popular spot for wintering eagles to perch. Pregracke worked with the Illinois Audubon Society and others to remove old boats and other trash marooned on the island in the middle of the river channel.
“I don’t get discouraged much,” he says of the enormity of the task. “Overwhelmed, yes.”
There is good news. Some areas need to be cleaned up repeatedly, but others have stayed clean thanks to local volunteers.
“Change has happened,” he says. “In some places you can’t find a pop can anymore.”
And sometimes the garbage picked up may give some insight into the human condition.
“There must be a lot of pissed-off bowlers out there,” Pregracke says with a laugh. “We find (bowling balls) in the bag still.”
One imagines a frustrated bowler heaving his ball into the water in anger.
“They are in every river.”
State Journal-Register writer Chris Young can be reached at email@example.com.
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