Trawling for Trash to Keep Our Rivers Clean

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 15, 2007

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 appliances 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 environmental 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.

How to Volunteer

Earth Conservation Corps' Anacostia Riverkeeper Program. Year-round on Thursday and Saturday mornings. Go to http://www.ecc1.org and click on "Volunteer to help restore the Anacostia River."

Anacostia Watershed Society. Go to http://www.anacostiaws.org for a list of the group's regular volunteering opportunities.

To volunteer with Pregracke on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers through April 22, go to www.livinglandsandwaters.org . For Pregracke's tips on mounting your own crusade, visit www.fromthebottomup.org.


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