Chad Pregracke, founder of Living Lands and Waters, said Wednesday that he has learned a few things in his 16 years of cleaning up America’s rivers.

“I’ve learned how many people truly care about our environment,” Pregracke said as he spoke to a crowd of about 200 people at St. Ambrose University, Davenport. “And I’ve learned how many people truly care about our rivers.”

Talking about how discouraged he sometimes became in the beginning of his quest, Pregracke said he has worked with more than 70,000 people who have joined community clean-ups of the Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois and Potomac rivers.

“Just about everybody in the world has heard of the Mississippi River,” he said. “At least 92 percent of all of America’s agricultural exports go through the Mississippi River or one of its connectors, and 18 million people rely on the river for drinking water every day.”

During his talk, Pregracke showed a photo taken last year of a Mississippi River slough near Memphis, Tenn. It was filled with debris, from tires, to refrigerators, to 55-gallon metal drums. “This looks like something out of the Third World, but it’s right here,” he said.

The trash he saw in the Mississippi and on its banks as a 17-year-old working with his brother as a commercial shell diver gave him the idea to clean up the river.

“I love my job because I get to see the results of our work every day,” he said.

Pregracke spoke at St. Ambrose at the invitation of Campus Ministry and the school’s environmental club, GreenLife. The Rev. Bud Grant, whose specialty is environmental theology, is the club's advisor.

“One of our students did some volunteer work for him over the summer and she came back to campus ministries and said, ‘We need to get him on campus,’” Grant said.

“He doesn’t promote the idea of what one man can do standing up against 'a big fill in the blank,' but rather what a community can do when they get behind something.”

Grant said he wanted his students to understand that environmental crises are not just global and are not always far away. “The Mississippi River is our back yard and it’s the core of our eco-system,” he said.

“I want our students to learn to take responsibility, and do what they need to do and become engaged and get involved,” he said.

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Miracle Leach, 22, a senior majoring in music and theology from Lockport Ill., said she works to make a difference on campus.

“It’s picking up things here and there on campus, what you can see,” Leach said. “The difference we can make can start right here on our campus.”

Everybody has littered at one time or another, Leach added, but people are becoming more cognizant of the effects it has on the environment.

Kemper Rusteberg, 21, a senior studying international business from Park Ridge, Ill., said picking trash on campus is a good start.

“We must make sure we put those things in the right spot, in the proper recycling bin,” Rusteberg said.

People should get out and see for themselves how bad the pollution of the river can get, he added.

“It’s never too late to learn so that we can effect change,” Rusteberg said.