Trawl­ing for Trash to Keep Our Rivers Clean

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sunday Source - By Dan Zak

Take a look at what this brash Mid­west­ern en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist writes about Wash­ing­ton’s rivers: “ I was ap­palled. ‘ This is the na­tion’s cap­i­tal? Are you kid­ding me?’ . . . I saw glass- tower of­fice build­ings in a place called Crys­tal City, and there were old town houses that had been re­stored in Alexan­dria, Vir­ginia, while the river’s banks were car­peted with plas­tic bot­tles and aluminum cans. Ex­pen­sive con­do­mini­ums over­looked the mud­flats en­crusted with rusty bar­rels and tires. It was dis­gust­ing.” No way to spin that, is there? That’s Chad Pre­gracke, 32, de­scrib­ing his first visit here four years ago. This im­pres­sion, as well his epic com­mit­ment to clean up the Mis­sis­sippi River, is de­tailed in his new book, “ From the Bot­tom Up: One Man’s Cru­sade to Clean Amer­ica’s Rivers” ( Na­tional Ge­o­graphic Books, 2007).

You may have seen Pre­gracke in the past week from a dis­tance, maybe on your com­mute to work. He’s the guy out on the garbage barge on the Po­tomac and Ana­cos­tia rivers, cap­tain­ing a fleet of trash col­lec­tors. He, his crew and lo­cal vol­un­teers are zip­ping around in mo­tor­boats to clean up our mess as part of the Cap­i­tal River Re­lief ef­fort through April 22.

Since found­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal non­profit group Liv­ing Lands & Wa­ters in 1998, Pre­gracke has be­come the Al Gore of the na­tion’s river sys­tems, for lack of a bet­ter de­scrip­tion. He lives in East Mo­line, Ill., but spends nine months a year haul­ing trash out of rivers, speak­ing at col­leges, court­ing spon­sor­ship, draft­ing vol­un­teers and stok­ing morale with his earnest, frat- boy- es­que pep. This is the fourth year he has stopped in the area. You’ve got­ten very familiar with plenty of rivers. De­scribe the per­son­al­i­ties of the Po­tomac and Ana­cos­tia.

You know what’s weird about out here? It’s tidal. We were used to com­ing from the Mid­west, so the Ana­cos­tia, as far as the garbage, it’s like a city river. When we go on the Ohio, it’s a lot of small stuff like you’re go­ing to see here — thou­sands of bot­tles — but then on the Ohio you also have hun­dreds of ap­pli- an­ces and big stuff, whereas here you just have a lot of garbage com­ing out of the storm sew­ers. It’s a city river with tides, so all the garbage gets caught in there. It’s just one of the dirt­i­est ones. But there’s a lot of peo­ple do­ing a lot of stuff. The Po­tomac’s per­son­al­ity: It seems a lot cleaner, even though there’s a ton of stuff in it as well. You write in your book that the first year you were in D. C., there was an as­tound­ing amount of red tape. You had to get sev­eral per­mits to pick up trash. Has it got­ten smoother?

It ab­so­lutely has be­cause we’ve had re­ally good part­ners, and my hat’s off to the Earth Con­ser­va­tion Corps and the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay Foun­da­tion and the Ana­cos­tia Wa­ter­shed So­ci­ety. I’m only here for one month, and it’s kind of a stress­ful place, to tell you the truth, and I go back to the Mid­west, and things are eas­ier there. But Robert Boone [ pres­i­dent of the Ana­cos­tia Wa­ter­shed So­ci­ety] and a lot of th­ese other or­ga­ni­za­tions have been able to stay so per­sis­tent and so fo­cused and ded­i­cated through all the ad­min­is­tra­tive changes and hur­dles, it’s just — man, it is es­pe­cially in­spir­ing. With all this at­ten­tion on cli­mate change, it’s easy to for­get about the scourge of lit­ter­ing and the value of old- fash­ioned trash pick­ing.

Ev­ery­body has their group. Some peo­ple are into lit­i­ga­tion. Some peo­ple are into study­ing fish. Ev­ery­body kind of has their own deal. Pick­ing up garbage is just one thing. Truth­fully, when I started this out, I didn’t even think of it as an envi- ron­men­tal project. I just didn’t like see­ing it like this and wanted to do some­thing. Pitch­ing in for a river cleanup for a cou­ple of hours is one thing, but what can we do in our day- to- day lives to sup­port this mis­sion?

Ev­ery­thing you do has an im­pact. Even plant­ing trees in your yard, that sort of thing is re­ally im­por­tant. I’m into trees just as much as I’m into garbage. Turn­ing off your lights, us­ing less wa­ter. It’s the lit­tle things that re­ally add up. Chang­ing your light bulbs, driv­ing less. I don’t want to come across sound­ing like I’m preach­ing. I try not to do that. But this is what you can do. It must be hard to stay up­beat some­times.

It’s not sup­posed to be easy. You’re not go­ing to solve prob­lems or add to a cause by ev­ery­thing be­ing easy. If it was so easy, there wouldn’t be a cause in the first place. But it has got­ten bet­ter. It truly has. What do you like to do out­side of clean­ing up?

Skate­board­ing, snow­board­ing. I like to help my brother com­mer­cial fish. Is this an eter­nal cleanup, or will there be a stop­ping point?

It is [ an eter­nal cleanup], but I do want to say in a lot of th­ese places I’ve been, there re­ally isn’t a need for us to go back. D. C.’ s dif­fer­ent. There’s def­i­nitely a lot of work to be done. Re­al­is­ti­cally, it’s go­ing to take some time.


Chad Pre­gracke leads trash-col­lect­ing vol­un­teers for the Cap­i­tal River Re­lief project on the Po­tomac and Ana­cos­tia rivers. He stops in the area each year to help lo­cal groups as part of a na­tion­wide cleanup tour.

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