On March 2, the keynote speaker for Horticulture in the Heartland held at Clinton Community College was Chad Pregracke. Name sound familiar? He is the founder of Living Lands and Waters.
He calls himself a river rat who in his younger years just wanted to swim, fish, and dig for clams while camping on the mighty Mississippi.
At the age of 17, Chad decided to start cleaning up the trash he saw in the river near his parents’ home in Hampton, Illinois. As teenagers, he and his brother worked as commercial shell divers, experiencing the river from the bottom up. Sometimes spending eight to 10 hours a day in the depths and current of the pitch-black waters, he crawled over 150 miles of the river bottom over six years. The more time he spent on the river the more he noticed decades of trash that had built up on it banks and backwaters. Chad saw the river's beauty and was frustrated by the neglect. The river was alive and full of life. Something had to be done.
Today, Chad and his Living Lands and Waters crew have organized over 1,000 community cleanups on 24 rivers in 21 states and removed over 10 million pounds of garbage. In the beginning, his boat and equipment were small and simple. Today, he has a working barge that includes a classroom for educational programs, work space, storage for equipment and living quarters for his crew.
In the winter they fix equipment, plan the next year's cleanups and present lectures to students and groups all over the Midwest. Every year in March they head out to their first river cleanup of several they do throughout the summer and fall. After Chad had finished speaking at Clinton Community College, he was headed to Memphis, Tennessee to lead an alternative spring break option for college students. Over 130 students from 15 colleges participated in several five-day river cleanups.
The nonprofit, Living Lands and Waters is not just about river cleanup. Several years ago a call was put out for people to collect acorns in the fall. The seeds were planted in a nursery with a goal of growing over a million oak tree seedlings.
The seedlings were then distributed to a dozen states to be planted along waterways to replace vegetation destroyed by flooding. The crew has also worked to eliminate invasive plants species and clean up after strong storms hit the Quad-City area. Chad and his crew loaded up their barge with food and supplies and headed south to help with the carnage left by Hurricane Katrina. The list of cleanups goes on and on.
Over the years, Chad and his organization have won numerous national awards, including the CNN Hero of the Year in 2013. There are struggles and hurdles to overcome every year but they have not diminished his enthusiasm and drive to continue to clean up our little part of the world.
Chad ended the program by saying, “There is still so much work to be done. We would love to have you help with one of our river cleanups, but if you can’t, just do what you can. If it is just picking up a Styrofoam cup, adding more items to your recycle bin … anything will help and it does make a difference.”
Margo Hansen is the director of programs at Bickelhaupt Arboretum.