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Illinois Issues
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River Man: The Founder of Living Lands & Waters Guides Hundreds of Volunteers in Collecting Trash

The Living Lands & Waters barge

Chad Pregracke is a man on a mission. Raised “10 feet from the river” in Hampton near East Moline, he grew up with the Mississippi as his playground. As a teenager, he worked in its silt-filled bottoms as a mussel diver and quit college to be a commercial fisherman. But his passion for wanting his view of the river free from debris has led to his life’s work. At 34, he is director of the nonprofit foundation Living Lands & Waters, and as such, he and thousands of volunteers over the past 15 years have collected tons of trash from the banks of the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers.

In a 1997 CNN story, Pregracke was described as a modern-day Huck Finn. But his labors in carrying out the monumental task of ridding the state’s rivers of decades of debris have been more Herculean. Like the Greek hero, he has succeeded in his trials more by chance, grit and the kindness of strangers than by any grand plan thought out ahead of time. 

“I just saw all this trash on the islands. Nobody was picking it up. So I did,” he says.

After filling his flat-bottomed boat several times over with old tires, oil drums, appliances and junk of all kinds, he unloaded it onto the dock at his parents’ house to be sorted and recycled. Gary and Keekee Pregracke, career educators, “weren’t too thrilled with that,” he says.

When just 23, he landed his first corporate sponsor. “I was walking past the TV at a buddy’s house and saw this NASCAR driver get out of his car, and he had all these corporate logos all over his suit. I said to myself, ‘That’s what I need: logos.’” More specifically, the corporate money behind the logos.

He picked up the Quad Cities phone book and there under “A” was Alcoa. Tim Wilkinson, who retired from the company in May as vice president of North American Public Strategy Group, doesn’t usually answer unfiltered calls, but he did that day.

Chad Pregracke on the barge amid hundreds of bags of trash
Chad Pregracke on the barge amid hundreds of bags of trash

As a liaison to the community at the time, Wilkinson agreed to meet with Pregracke. “The receptionist walked back to my office and said there’s a young man in bib overalls and a baseball cap with long hair who wants to talk to you about cleaning up the Mississippi River.”

Intrigued and inspired by Pregracke’s “unbridled enthusiasm” and dedication to his vision, Wilkinson held open the door to eventual funding, provided Pregracke would bring back a plan and a budget. 

“I said, ‘No problem,’ but I didn’t have a clue how to form a business plan or make up a budget,” says Pregracke.

His mom came to his rescue and helped him create a budget of $8,400 for a bare bones operation. Alcoa agreed. It was much less than the $77,000 he had asked for at that first meeting, but it launched his journey.

After people started noticing what he was doing and he got some press, grain companies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge sponsored his cleanup efforts. 

As of 2008, Pregracke and his crew (currently 10 full-time and three part-time paid staff) and thousands of volunteers have picked up an estimated 6 million pounds of trash, including 55,301 tires, 775 refrigerators, 179 washing machines, 12 porta-potties, 41 shopping carts, 181 coolers, 12 bowling balls, 5,207 55-gallon drums, 54 250-gallon drums, 24 bathtubs, 179 TVs, 12 bags of police riot gear, two pianos, 48 messages in a bottle, 7,913 feet of barge cable and enough 1-inch-thick styrofoam to cover 11 football fields. 

Freebies — whether from volunteers who show up for a day’s work or from corporations that donate “whatever Chad needs” — are key to the success of Living Lands & Waters. 

Ingram Barge Co., which runs 1,000 barges on the Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois rivers, was an early corporate sponsor. “When Chad came on the scene in 1998-99, we were impressed that essentially a single person, who was probably in his early 20s then, had come up with the idea of cleaning up the upper Mississippi River,” says Dan Mecklenborg, senior vice president and chief legal counsel. “He had the energy, the personality and the can-do attitude that attracted people who were sitting in offices miles from the river to buy into his vision, his dream that we could make our rivers cleaner and make them a better place for not only those of us who work on the rivers but for those who use them recreationally.”

The Nashville, Tenn.-based Ingram, along with other commercial transportation companies, sponsor an annual river cleanup in Paducah, Ky. For each of the past three years, about 200 employees of the companies spent a day picking up trash. “Interestingly,” says Mecklenborg, “we always go to the Illinois side of the river to clean. Chad must have a fondness for Illinois riverbanks.”

In the most recent cleanup effort, the barge companies paid for 215 of their employees to make the trip to Paducah from Nashville, St. Louis and other places. “With their help,” says Pregracke, “in about four hours we were able to fill a bargeload of garbage.”

But does a less trashy river mean a cleaner river?

“Absolutely,” says Glynnis Collins, executive director of the Prairie Rivers Network, a nonprofit based in Champaign. “We’re certainly concerned about the organisms living in the river, but we’re also concerned about people being able to enjoy the river — fishing, boating, swimming, and also just aesthetically, the aesthetic pleasure they get from seeing this beautiful, mighty river. Removing the trash affects all those things, especially the big, unsightly, horrible debris that Chad’s group gets out.”

Marcia Willhite agrees, but “cleaner” water has a more specific definition to the chief of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s water division.

“Water quality has improved immensely over the past 35 years,” she says, “but to make progress in the next 35 years, we have to address nonpoint source pollution.”

The agency basically tackles water pollution from two broad sources: point, which describes harmful elements entering streams from such places as factories or water treatment plants; and nonpoint, which includes sediment, excess nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and rainwater runoff carrying oils and chemicals from lawns and parking lots. 

Point-source pollution is closely regulated by federal and state laws, though watchdog groups such as the Prairie Rivers Network argue that government needs to do more to control the amount of such pollutants as fecal coliform bacteria. Nonpoint source pollution is far less regulated and is approached through incentive programs. 

In 2008, the state agency handed out nearly $4.5 million in federal Clean Water Act grants to landowners, municipalities and others for the implementation of “best management practices” for nonpoint source pollution control. The grants cover such projects as sediment control basins, streambank restoration, recreation area improvements and educational programs. Living Lands & Waters has received $63,250 to aid its efforts.

Willhite says progress will be slow if the state continues to follow the same approach toward nonpoint source pollution as in the past decade. “It’ll take either putting in place requirements for nonpoint source pollution control or much more incentive than we’ve been able to provide to date.”

Mike Dimissie, head of the Illinois State Water Survey, agrees and adds that river trash is just one form of nonpoint source pollution that needs to be addressed. “Nonpoint source pollution is a complex issue, and that is why we need good data to support implementation of policies.”

The state environmental protection agency tests about 20 percent of the more than 70,000 miles of streams and rivers in Illinois. The most recent data shows that about 60 percent of the waterways sampled were rated clean enough to support aquatic life. The percentage is about the same for safe fish consumption but much lower for public water supplies and swimming. 

Pregracke stresses he’s not a scientist. But as someone who has closely observed the state’s rivers for more than three decades, he can say with some authority that Illinois’ main rivers appear cleaner.

“As far as trash and garbage goes, I’ve seen what I like to call social change happen on the upper Mississippi River, as well as the Illinois River,” he says. “People are not treating the river as bad as they once were. ... It’s hard to find a pop can in some places.”

The problem he sees causing the most concern is siltation, which he says is getting “worse and worse.” Sediment chokes plant and animal life and creates shallower streams that become more prone to flooding.

However, he also sees restoration efforts and changes in farming practices beginning to take hold. He points to such nonprofit groups as The Nature Conservancy and the work they are doing at the Emiquon Preserve, the Wetlands Initiative and Ducks Unlimited. But he also credits farmers for using no-till planting and government programs such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

But Pregracke has also taken his organization toward restoration of the river banks. In 2007, Living Lands & Waters took on the task of organizing volunteers to meet the ambitious goal of planting a million trees in communities and along the waterways. Volunteers, many of them children, collect acorns and other seeds, which they plant in a nursery on a three-acre plot donated by Cargill in Beardstown. Denise Mitten, the project coordinator, says they’ve planted 440,000 acorns, not all of which grow. But they transplant those that do sprout when they are about a foot tall. She says they expect to reach their million-tree goal within a decade.

Living Lands & Waters also offers educational seminars to teachers and other interested groups on board the foundation’s house barge, which was donated by John Eckstein, owner of Marquette Transportation Co. based in Paducah. “It used to be his office, and now it’s my office,” says Pregracke.

The crew’s living room turns into a classroom for the presentations. Since 2003, the organization has had 1,700 schoolteachers, naturalists and others on board. Tammy Becker, education coordinator, says that 80 percent of teachers surveyed report they incorporated what they learned into their lesson plans. 

“We believe that if these young kids get to know and to value the river system, they will become stewards of their rivers,” says Becker.

When the houseboat/barge is not hosting guests, it is home for the crew for about nine months while the rivers are navigable. Just as Pregracke was inspired by NASCAR logos to ask for corporate help, maneuvering his small boat around the massive grain barges moving up and down the river led him to the conclusion: “I need a barge.” He got the first one from a gravel company in Moline and the one that became his floating home and headquarters from Marquette’s Eckstein in Paducah.

“He gave it to us for free, and he still gives us rides,” says Pregracke. Eckstein also became a believer in the cause. “He’s our top sponsor. Anything we ask, he makes happen for us.”

Pregracke’s barge often hitches free rides up and down the rivers attached to barge company tows. When Illinois Issues caught up with him, his barge was being towed up the Illinois River by St. Louis-based AEP River Operations in preparation for a season of garbage-gathering events planned for “nearly every town” along the Illinois. “It saves so much fuel and time and staff and money. It’s kind of hard to plan sometimes, but bottom line is we’re able to get more done and do it for less.”

Though Pregracke has a knack for showing people how to have fun doing hard, dirty, unpaid work, he is quick to give the volunteers the majority of the credit for the foundation’s successes. “More and more people are getting involved each year, and that’s how change happens.” 

People who give up a day of their weekend to haul heavy tires, toys, lawn furniture, appliances and other such jetsam and flotsam of life and floods begin to feel they have a stake in the river, he says. “So some of those big issues like siltation and runoff and development and things like that will be focused on more by many.” Pregracke feels his foundation has created an opportunity for people to do something positive and to see the results instantly. “Hopefully,” he says, “they’ll take the next step and organize a cleanup on their own or call their state legislators, join other groups or get active in different ways.”


The Million Trees Project

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Living Lands & Waters has been collecting and planting seeds of native hardwood trees at a nursery in Beardstown with the goal of growing 1 million trees in the next five to 10 years. Those trees will be replanted along the shorelines and on the islands of the state’s major waterways, as well as within the towns and cities of volunteers.

Over the past 150 years, tree diversity has declined along the shores of rivers such as the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio. Most of the native fruit- and nut-bearing hardwood trees that once grew were depleted for fuel and building materials during the Steamboat Era and by flooding and disease. 

The residual effect has been a monoculture of cottonwoods, silver maples and willows, which outgrow and crowd out many native fruit- and nut-bearing hardwoods, such as oaks, hickories, hackberries, mulberries, pecan and paw paw. 

Diversifying the current makeup of trees along shorelines helps protect against viruses, bores and other threats that could otherwise deplete an entire forest made up of just one or two species.

Native trees have evolved in a regional environment, allowing them to develop natural defenses to withstand many types of insects and diseases, as well as severe winters and summer droughts. They typically thrive with minimal maintenance and have a much higher survival rate than non-native or “introduced” tree species. Native trees that evolved with local flora and fauna help support the web of life without being overwhelmed by it. 

Yet, many species of wildlife have nearly disappeared from the riverbanks because of the absence of food. The trees that currently grow on the river have little or no food value for wildlife. The Million Trees Project will only plant trees that produce nuts and fruits so that ducks, songbirds, squirrels, wild turkeys and other animals have a viable food source. These strong hardwoods create a welcoming habitat for wildlife and nesting birds. 

For aquatic life, shade from trees keeps waterways cool during hot weather. The shade also reduces the intensity of algae blooms and the undesirable overgrowth of vegetation caused by high concentrates of plant nutrients in the water.

Trees act as filters and help reduce the amount of pollution and runoff entering the state’s creeks, rivers and streams. Long and strong roots help keep the ground in place and reduce erosion. Leaves filter the air and produce oxygen. And by absorbing carbon, trees reduce the impact of climate change. 

Aside from all the health and wildlife benefits, trees increase the aesthetics of a landscape everywhere they are planted.

from Living Lands & Waters materials

Illinois Issues, Julu/August 2009

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