Minutes into a community river cleanup day near Quincy, Illinois, Chad Pregracke’s boat is stuck in Mississippi River silt near Quincy, Illinois. “Not to worry,” he says in his trademark energetic patter. “We’re professionals.”
Pregracke, 29, the founder and driving force of the six‑year‑old Mississippi River Beautification & Restoration Project, grabs a shovel from the bottom of his 20‑foot flat‑bottom johnboat and vaults into the shin‑deep water. Nearby, a massive dredger sucks mud out from the river’s channel and sprays it onto a nearby island. A long line of impatient barges sits upstream. The johnboat seems tiny motoring in between the huge commercial vessels.
With more than a passing resemblance to Tom Cruise, Pregracke is a few bow knots under 6 feet. His brown hair is shoved under a blue cap, and he wears his customary garbage-collecting garb: filthy knee‑length shorts that might have been white once; a gray T‑shirt long past laundering, ankle-height rubber boots, and an orange life preserver. He talks nonstop about everything from skateboarding to raising money from corporations. “I keep talking until they can’t say no.” The johnboat is the result of a classic Pregracke barter. Alcoa donated aluminum to the project, and Chad traded it to Oquawka Boat Company for the johnboat.
Pregracke, his four‑member crew, and a black lab named Djembe have cleaned up barge‑loads of garbage in a 435‑mile stretch along both sides of the Big Muddy, from Guttenberg, Iowa, to just north of St. Louis, Missouri. They live in cramped quarters on an untidy houseboat dubbed the “Dead Head Homestead est. 1992.” Speakers blast out the latest tunes from Britney Spears and Rage Against the Machine. There is no evidence that twelve-hour days picking trash and bathing in the river have made the slightest dent on the idealistic spirit of these twenty‑year‑olds.
Keokuk, Iowa, Mayor Gary M. Folluo says after two visits by Pregracke’s crew, his citizenry have organized their own annual river cleanup. “It’s inspiring to see young people take on projects that take so much dedication to the environment. Projects like this bring awareness to the river.”
Back in the boat, Pregracke slowly raises the propeller of the Honda outboard, and black topsoil spins off the blades back into the warm Mississippi. He lands at a nearby island littered with rusty barrels, several ancient duck‑blind rugs, and a bright blue plastic child’s pool. “We pulled a 1970 Ford Econoline van out of here in 1998,” Pregracke says happily, rolling a truck tire through the underbrush.
This day’s catch will be added to a master list of 800 tons of trash that, as of the fall of 2003, includes 8,272 car tires, 449 propane tanks, 128 pesticide containers, 3 farm tractors, 75 televisions, 5,634 feet of barge line, 32 toilets, 2 prosthetic legs (found separately), enough Styrofoam to cover two football fields one-foot thick, and what crew member Erik Wilson labels the “number one stink of the year”: a horse head wrapped in plastic and stuffed in a cooler. The crew doesn’t count the snakes, but all agree that Hannibal, Missouri, has the most.
Much of the garbage is scrap metal and goes to local recycling yards; the Styrofoam and other junk goes to nearby landfills; and any toxic materials are brought for disposal to the Environmental Protection Agency in Alton, Illinois.
The ecological significance of the world’s second-largest drainage basin is one of the major messages the Mississippi River Beautification & Restoration Project delivers while traveling up and down the river. The conservation group, American Rivers, estimates that 40 percent of all birds in North America use the Mississippi as a major flyway. Pregracke says, “The Mississippi River is the Yellowstone of the Midwest: a last stand for wildlife, and needs to be treated like the Yellowstone.”
Pregracke grew up 10 feet from the Mississippi River in East Moline, Illinois. By the age of 15, he was diving with his brother 8 to 10 hours a day for three‑ridge and big washboard mussels for the cultured pearl industry. During the next 6 years, Pregracke got a first‑hand look at the accumulation of debris on the islands and underwater, and he was disgusted.
“We had to live next to refrigerators. I finally said, ‘I’m going to take it upon myself to do something about this whole deal.'”
In 1997, after “getting the runaround” from the state of Illinois, Pregracke went on a fund‑raising frenzy that produced a $10,000 grant from the aluminum producer Alcoa. With little more than that start‑up money, the Mississippi River Beautification & Restoration Project was born. That summer he single‑handedly picked up 45,000 lbs. of trash in a 100‑mile stretch. His success led to more donations and the creation of the nonprofit “Living Lands & Waters.” This year’s budget is more than $400,000.
In 1999, Pregracke launched the “Adopt a Mississippi River Mile,” where individuals and businesses commit to regularly clean up specific stretches of the river. Some 50 miles of the river are currently being patrolled by groups such as the Fulton, Illinois Middle School (7th grade) and the Elk River Paddlers Cooperative of Clinton, Iowa.
In 2001 and 2002, Pregracke and his crew tackled a 981‑mile section of the Ohio River. Then they pointed the deadhead homestead west to the Missouri River with a cleanup project in Easley, Missouri, that attracted 500 volunteers. Their work continues on the Missouri and Des Moines rivers this year, along with the crew’s regular stops on the Mississippi.
In 2002, Pregracke was honored at a ceremony in the U.S. Supreme Court with the national Jefferson Award, America’s equivalent of a Nobel Prize for public service. Also receiving the award that year were Bill and Melinda Gates and Rudolph Giuliani.
Finding new rivers to clean up might just be the result of too much success on the Mississippi. “Each year when we go back, there’s less garbage,” says Pregracke. “We’re actually running out of garbage.”
© Stephen J. Lyons