Since national hero Chad Pregracke founded East Moline-based Living Lands & Waters in 1998, the nonprofit has worked on removing trash from 24 rivers in 21 states. With the help of more than 115,000 volunteers, it’s removed 10.5 million pounds of debris from U.S. waterways.

East Moline native Chad Pregracke founded Living Lands & Waters in 1998, at age 23.

On Thursday, March 18, Pregracke will announce formation of a major new effort in the Quad-Cities, Bison Bridge Foundation, and the 90-minute event will be livestreamed from The Rust Belt in East Moline.

Starting at 6:30 p.m. March 18, tune in live at https://bisonbridge.org/live-stream, where he and his team will discuss a historic new project plan for the region. There is no information currently on the new Bison Bridge website.

“It’s less of a Living Lands project and more of a Chad project – Living Lands is helping launch it,” Leah Cafarelli, director of marketing and program coordinator for LL&W, said Friday. “It will be a separate foundation — just going to bring a lot of positive changes for the Quad-Cities.

“It’s a project Chad’s had in his head for decades and been in the works for years,” she said. “There’s been a lot of planning behind it, it’s backed by a lot of work. He’s thinking it will put the Quad-Cities on the map, help people move to the Quad-Cities and not away. We can’t say

Living Lands & Waters has removed over 10.5 million pounds of trash from 24 rivers in 21 states.

what it is.”

After seeing garbage litter the Mississippi River, a 17-year-old Pregracke started making calls to government agencies to notify them of the problem, assuming someone would take care of it. Year after year passed by and the problem only worsened. In 1997, Chad decided that if no one else was going to clean up the river, he would.

In 1998, at the age of 23, Pregracke founded Living Lands & Waters. Today, the organization has grown to include a full staff and fleet of equipment. The crew averages nine states a year along the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers, as well as many of their tributaries. Pregracke expanded the mission of the organization to include Student Educational WorkshopsThe Million Trees ProjectAdopt-a-River MileInvasive Species Removal and The Great Mississippi River Cleanup.

His charisma, nonstop work ethic and natural leadership abilities have garnered him an abundance of awards and honors over the years. Most notably, Pregracke was the recipient of the Jefferson Award for Public Service (America’s version of the Nobel Prize) in June 2002. He accepted this award in the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. with other award recipients including Bill and Melinda Gates.

In 2013, he was named CNN’s Hero of the Year, and Pregracke is also the author of “From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers” (2007).

Since the organization was founded, Living Lands & Waters has grown to be the only “industrial strength” river cleanup organization like it in the world.

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Spending up to nine months a year living and traveling on the barge, the LL&W crew hosts river cleanups, watershed conservation initiatives,

workshops, tree plantings, and other key conservation efforts.

The group’s fleet includes five barges, two towboats, six workboats, two skid steers, an excavator, five work trucks and a crane.

A creepy doll wall on a barge is festooned with some of the 747 baby dolls plucked out of rivers.

To date, LL&W crews and volunteers have removed the following so far:

  • Bags of garbage — 133,909
  • Tires — 90,956
  • 55-gallon barrels — 10,426
  • Refrigerators — 891
  • Cars — 25.5
  • 5-gallon buckets — 7,231
  • Milk crates — 1,480.5
  • Styrofoam — over 510,000 square feet
  • Messages in bottles – 95
  • Coolers – 922
  • Televisions – 415
  • Bowling balls — 120
  • Computers – 139
  • Gas cans – 635
  • Patio chairs — 394.5
  • Mannequin parts – 17
  • A new Bison Bridge Foundation will be announced March 18 at the Rust Belt, East Moline.

    Baby dolls – 747

  • Barbecue grills – 175
  • Boats – 123
  • Balls — 24,654
  • Stoves – 194
  • Pianos – 4
  • Propane tanks — 910
  • Clown shoes — 2
  • Toilets – 132
  • Shopping carts – 67
  • Lawn mowers – 59
  • Prosthetic limbs — 13
  • Bicycles – 132
  • John Deere combines – 1
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Working to make a difference

Cafarelli first got involved in the organization in 2016, as a junior at Salem State University (north of Boston), volunteering for the annual LL&W Alternative Spring Break, where students from across the country usually come to Memphis, Tenn., for a week. They have worked

Leah Cafarelli is LL&W’s director of marketing and program coordinator.

cleaning a lake there that’s a tributary of the Mississippi River.

“There it’s so concentrated with litter — water bottles, plastic, there’s so much garbage,” Cafarelli said. “It’s a great place to take a bunch of boats, have hundreds of college students come.”

To date, the Alternative Spring Break program has worked with 2,205 college students from all over the country to remove over 1.5 million pounds of trash. Since 2017, Cafarelli has worked for LL&W and she’s in charge of that program, among many responsibilities.

“It’s like instant gratification, like results work, you know?” she said of LL&W efforts. “I do the marketing, which should normally be a desk job, you know? But instead, I live out on the barge and go clean up garbage as well and run a boat and run our equipment. It’s like you’re just really satisfied at the end of the day with what you did.”

Because of Covid, the nonprofit isn’t going to Memphis this spring, but still provided opportunities for students.

Cafarelli put together cleanup kits (“spring break in a box”) with gloves, trash bags, and resources to help college students do their own cleanups – for seven universities and one high school, reaching over 100 students. Typically, the spring break program involves about 300 students, she said.

The virtual spring break boxes will go to:

  • George Williams College
  • Illinois State University
  • University of Wisconsin – Platteville
  • Texas A&M University
  • University of Illinois – Chicago
  • Rhodes College
  • Merrimack College
  • Rock Island High School

“Last spring, it was crazy. We had our biggest year yet planned, everything set up, had commercial fishermen come in because we needed extra boats,” Cafarelli said. “On week one in Memphis is when everything started hitting, so we got through that first week and students were sent back to campus, we had to cancel. Half of our crew came back to the Quad-Cities to help with the trees. Some of us stayed to clean up as much as we could before heading out.”

A large Living Lands & Waters barge prowls U.S. waterways to remove tires and other trash.

Last year, LL&W focused along the Illinois River, and did projects that needed attention in the Quad-Cities, including working on their barges, she said.

“We’re back at it this year, and though we’re not engaging the community as much, to keep everyone safe until everything’s in the clear, we’re gonna be engaging with smaller groups and our sponsors,” Cafarelli said.

LL&W has had local “do-it-yourself” projects, where people can volunteer to help clean their local areas and get materials sent for free.

“We have a Great Mississippi River Cleanup project, where individuals and groups can plan their own cleanups along Mississippi, and we have our Adopt-A-River Mile, which is like the adopt-a-highway program where you pick a stretch of land and, like, pledge to keep it clean. And we send you all the materials you need,” Cafarelli said. “Those are pretty popular.”

In 2010, the Great Mississippi River Cleanup was initiated by LL&W to inspire communities to host an annual cleanup event. After four very successful years cleaning up primarily the Upper Mississippi River, they expanded cleanup efforts to the full length of the river.

From the headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, volunteers participate by cleaning up the Mighty Mississippi. To date, LL&W has helped coordinate 125 cleanups and, with the help of more than 10,230 volunteers, removed 610,024 pounds of debris.

Other projects LL&W does include harvesting oak trees at a Davenport nursery to give away, and restoring land into native prairie near the I-80 bridge, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi in East Moline.

For more information, visit www.livinglandsandwaters.org.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.