President and Founder
Living Lands and Waters
Black Hawk College, Illinois
By Evelyn L. Kent
Chad Pregracke reasons that his story’s popularity is rooted in the simple fact that it’s a good one. It does have the essential elements of a riveting tale – a young, good looking, driven hero; a well-known, beloved victim; passion; a satisfying conclusion.
It goes something like this. Pregracke grew up with the Mississippi River in his back yard. He played in it, worked on it and fed himself out of it. It more than bothered him that while he was doing all of that, he was also dodging trash. While a student at Black Hawk Community College in Illinois, Pregracke set about cleaning up the river.
We’re not talking spending a Saturday afternoon picking up trash from the banks of the mighty Mississippi. We’re talking spending all the hours of daylight hauling tons of trash – old sinks and discarded appliances, barrels of oil and sunken cars – off the banks of rivers. He found his passion that year, in 1997, and in the next he started a nonprofit with a small grant from Alcoa. He was 23.
“There are a lot of things that play into this, one is the Mississippi River. It’s legendary, it’s world renowned. I was young when it started off. … It’s a positive story with positive outcomes,” Pregracke said.
His passion quickly became his life, and Pregracke was seldom in one place for long. Finishing school was an important goal – for him and his teacher-parents. Black Hawk Community College didn’t flinch. “I actually finished my last three classes from the houseboat to get my degree after I started the project.”
Those classes were independent study, and the school literally ferried assignments to him. “They want to make it work for people,” Pregracke said of Blackhawk.
Pregracke quickly expanded from a one-man project into a national organization, now called Living Lands and Waters. He has a staff of nine, and the organization is based out of his house in East Moline, Ill. In all but the winter months, Pregracke and staff live on a houseboat and move down the river to a new city every week or so.
The organization works with volunteers in a nine-state area, primarily in the Midwest. Only a third of the trash comes out of the water, one third is on the islands of the river and one third on the banks. “It’s all stuff you can see,” Pregracke said.
The group also conducts teacher educational workshops that focus on the river and how it affects people instead of on environmental issues. In two years more than 1,000 teachers have taken the class, Pregracke said.
He plans to expand the project in scope and in physical presence by converting a barge into a floating classroom that teachers can bring students to. Pregracke would like for kids to grow up caring about the river and wants them to have a chance to have a memorable field trip, especially with funding cuts. “I think it’s going to be a huge success,” he said.
If past history is any indication, it will be.