#880 Hero of the Mississippi River

Living Lands and Waters Founder and President Chad Pregracke and volunteers

Living Lands and Waters Founder and President Chad Pregracke and volunteers Sarah, Christine and David pose with the barrel that “gave them trouble” during The Great Mississippi River Cleanup held June 16, 2012 on the Winona District. Photo by Stefanski/USFWS, via Flickr Creative Commons

CNN could have bestowed 2013 Hero of the Year, on any of the top candidates and brought cheers from the audience. All 10 deserved the accolades. (Two of them have already been featured here: Laura Stachel and Tawanda Jones)

The Hero they chose, Chad Pregracke, is a man with a mission to clean up U.S. waterways. For 15 years he has been pulling trash out of rivers and enlisting nearly 70,000 volunteers to help. A CNN report from November 18, 2013 put the tally at 7 million pounds of debris, including 67,000 tires, “218 washing machines, 19 tractors, 12 hot tubs, four pianos and almost 1,000 refrigerators.”

His passion for clean rivers dates back to when he was a teenager, diving for mussels with his father. The pair would sell the shells to Japanese buyers, for the cultured-pearl industry. An article no longer on the Time site but referred to on a Tulane University site, River Cleanup Efforts, says the idyllic river life the Pregrackes enjoyed became threatened by trash people threw into it. By the time Chad started university:

[He] had come to see the river differently—not as a source of income and diversion but as a threatened, fragile living creature that needed his help. Crawling on the weedy bottom in his search for shells, attached by a hose to an air tank on the surface, he couldn’t see much—the water was too turbid—but he could feel things. Things he didn’t like. Sunken tires. Barrels of chemicals. Microwave ovens and deflated basketballs.

Though the Mississippi was also threatened by other things, such as industrial and agricultural runoff, the debris was something he could tackle. According to CNN:

With persistence, sincerity and a lot of chutzpah, Pregracke got a small grant from Alcoa in 1997 and spent that summer cleaning a 35-mile stretch of the river by himself. He would transport the trash by boat and sort it on his parents’ lawn to be recycled. By year’s end, he had single-handedly pulled around 45,000 pounds of trash out of the river.

Pregracke is still pulling trash out of the river, but now he does it as head of Living Lands & Waters, the non-profit organization he founded in 1998. In addition to its massive cleanup efforts, the organization offers workshops on its floating classroom and boats, provides free curriculum to schools, and is halfway toward its goal of planting a million trees. Pregracke is in demand as an environmental speaker and has won numerous awards.

Pregracke personifies one of the things he speaks about, the power of one. He was one man with a dream. He enlisted others and turned his dream into a powerhouse. He and the colleagues and volunteers who make Living Lands & Waters such a dynamic organization give me hope.

You can follow Living Lands & Waters on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

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