Massive mission to clean up Mississippi River comes to N.O.

NEW ORLEANS - The amount of garbage that litters the banks of the Mississippi River can be mind-boggling. And Chad Pregracke is on a mission to clean it up.

A native of East Moline, Ill. – a town that sits along the Mississippi – he was struck by how much junk he saw in the river during his stint as a commercial shell diver.

Through his non-profit organization Living Lands & Waters, Pregracke has been picking up trash and debris from the Mississippi and several other rivers across the U.S. since 1998.

"We've moved over seven million pounds of garbage since we started," he said. "Over 1,000 refrigerators, over 3,000 55-gallon barrels, I mean, like 76,000 tires, cars, trucks, tops of school buses, campers, semis - you name it. Anything that shouldn't be in the water, that's what we pick up."

Pregracke, who was recently named CNN's Hero of the Year, travels with his crew up and down the river on a barge, where they actually live several months out of the year.

This week, they're docked alongside Woldenberg Park as their focus shifts to New Orleans.

"We're working with a lot of the marine industry, a lot of their employees, doing cleanups - trying to make a difference that way - but then we're also doing educational workshops with a number of high schools around the area," Pregracke said.

For Marigny resident Dan Sheridan, it's a welcome sight.

"This river is attached to most of the country, and everything flows right through here and we need to do something," he said.

Sheridan has organized local river cleanups of his own and, each time, he's disgusted by what he finds.

"The level of trash is astounding," Sheridan said. "It piles up along the banks, and when the river rises from all the rainfall, eventually it all just flushes out into the Gulf."

Living Lands & Waters members – with the help of tens of thousands of volunteers - vow to keep attacking the problem from the Mississippi's northern end all the way to the mouth.

"We just physically grab everything and throw it in our smaller boats, our skiffs, and then bring it over here and sort it out," Pregracke said, while giving us a tour of the barge. "All of this stuff then gets put on semis and taken to different recycling places."

It's a highly coordinated effort - one he believes will pay off for those who rely on this critical resource.

"18 million people get their drinking water from the river every day and obviously it helps move the whole country," Pregracke said. "Seventy-thousand (volunteers) have come together to make it happen, and people are continuing to do cleanups all the time. It's really good to see so many people doing great things, and it really makes a difference."