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Barrel by barrel, cleaning America's rivers

Story Highlights

• Chad Pregracke is the founder of the nonprofit Living Lands and Waters
• The group cleans up garbage in rivers across the country
• Pregracke won Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2002 for his work
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(CNN) -- Armed with life jackets, gloves, shovels and the occasional hard hat, Chad Pregracke and workers from his nonprofit organization, Living Lands and Waters, are trying to clean up America's rivers.

"There isn't one river I can say that is really in perfect condition; there's room for improvement everywhere," Pregracke told CNN recently.

And one river at a time, he is looking to make those improvements. Last year, the organization helped coordinate more than 60 cleanups in about 40 cities or towns, Pregracke said.

Pregracke estimates that Living Lands and Waters employees and volunteer teams have collected nearly 3 million pounds of garbage from rivers nationwide in nearly 10 years. After sorting through the collected garbage, they send it to recycling centers or to landfills.

In addition to river cleanups, Living Lands and Waters also plants trees and conducts educational workshops on river biology.

The organization began small. It grew out of Pregracke's distaste for the junk in the Mississippi River that he saw as a teen diving for shells to make money in the summer. Discarded barrels, tires and appliances lay amid the murky river bottom that he searched.

"I got sick of seeing it," Pregracke said. "I just didn't think it should be like that."

Harnessing his indignation, Pregracke began a project in college to clean up the Mississippi River. In the first year, he collected and recycled 45,000 pounds of debris from the river near the Quad City area in Iowa and Illinois, according to the Living Lands and Waters' Web site.

A year later, in 1998, Pregracke founded the nonprofit environment organization, Living Lands and Waters, to gather funds to continue his project. "It was simple to me. There was a problem. It was the Mississippi River. ... I wanted to do something about it and ... I was hoping it would gain a little bit of momentum," he said. "It really did, actually; it's gained a lot of momentum."

The organization now has more than 70 sponsors, including large corporations such as Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. and Honda. In 2002, Pregracke was awarded the Jefferson Award for Public Service for his work on cleaning rivers. The award is considered the U.S. version of the Nobel Prize for public service.

"This is just something that's passionate to me," he said. "You get to meet a lot of people, do something good for the country, the world and the rivers."

Pregracke, who has chronicled his story as co-author of "From the Bottom Up," said, "This is my life's work."

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Chad Pregracke is the founder of Living Lands and Waters, a nonprofit environmental organization.

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