News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

March 29, 2014

MARK BENNETT: Volunteers’ cleanup efforts key to river’s future role in community

TERRE HAUTE — People throw all kinds of garbage into and along the Wabash River, aiming to make their used-up stuff disappear from their lives.

Teams of good-hearted folks will clean up the litterers’ mess on Saturday, April 12, when the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College Sustainability Club conducts its fourth-annual Operation Wabashiki. Volunteers from around the community pull a smorgasbord of refuse, year after year, from the river’s scenic wetlands, now preserved as the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area. Tires. Mattresses. Couches. Meth lab materials. Lots of plastic bottles. All mindlessly dumped into Indiana’s state river.

It’s messy, crucial work. The Wabash is the one quality-of-life asset with the potential to transform the Terre Haute community’s future, but only if its water and banks are kept clean. Operation Wabashiki helps do just that.

Chad Pregracke understands cleanups of rivers. Since 1998, he and volunteers for his Illinois-based nonprofit organization Living Lands & Waters have hauled more than 8 million pounds of trash from 23 American rivers, including the Wabash, in 20 states while also educating communities about conservation. Pregracke and his team — God bless ’em — pick up tons of other humans’ unwanted debris. A few months ago, CNN fittingly named Pregracke its 2013 Hero of the Year.

One of Pregracke’s pastimes in this gritty task is sifting through the rubbish to locate a tossed item that people actually intend to be found in another time and another place …

Messages in bottles.

He’s uncovered more than 70 of them over the years, and his small crew of employees compete to find the most fascinating. The contents of the bottles range from heartfelt messages to lost children, unrequited loves, the world in general and God, as well as a treasure map (leading to no actual treasure), photographs, “call me” requests, and a man’s ashes. Pregracke’s favorite among them was cast afloat in, yes, the Wabash River.

It was a love song, handwritten on sheet music, called “Lavender for You.” Romantic, with a Midwestern twist — the sender rolled up the music and tucked it into a 40-ounce Budweiser bottle. “We found it right where the Ohio [River] and the Wabash meet,” Pregracke explained by telephone earlier this month from Memphis, where Living Lands & Waters conducted a large Mississippi River cleanup.

Pregracke took it to a musician who played the song, written for guitar. Later, in a USA Today interview a few years ago about his message-in-a-bottle collection, he mentioned the “Lavender for You” bottle recovery, and wound up getting a phone call from a guy who said he was the song’s subject. The ballad emerged from a breakup between the guy and his girlfriend. She wrote the song for him.

Its discovery prompted the guy to contact Pregracke.

“He just wanted me to know,” Pregracke recalled.

Most bottles gathered by the Living Lands & Waters staff aren’t set adrift so thoughtfully. Once the bottles’ contents — from water to pop — have quenched the drinkers’ thirst, the containers get pitched along the bank of a creek that feeds a river that connects to another river before flowing toward the ocean. Pregracke and the others snag mountains of Mountain Dew bottles, and other soda varieties, and load them onto the group’s barges and boats, along with beaucoup fast-food cartons, Styrofoam cups and forgotten toys. Almost all of the Living Lands & Waters load gets recycled.

Pregracke, now 39, grew up in the Mississippi River town of East Moline, Ill. As a teenager, he worked as a shell diver and commercial fisherman, camping on the banks of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Pregracke saw trash blotting the natural scenery. As the Living Lands & Water website explains, he contacted government agencies about the bankside dumping, but no action ever occurred. That’s when, “I said, ‘I’m going to do something about it,’” Pregracke recalled in the phone interview.

So, just 23 years old, Pregracke formed Living Lands & Waters in 1998.

“I just got sick of seeing junk in the river,” he said.

Pregracke was inspired to hear about the annual Wabashiki cleanups and Terre Haute’s 2013 Year of the River initiative.

The cleanups are “a good thing to do with a lot of people,” he said. “You can do a lot in a short amount of time.”

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods’ Sustainability Club invites the entire community to help on April 12. Last spring, volunteers filled nine recycling bins with tires, glass, plastics, mattresses and furniture, said Adeline Dible, the club’s president. The sophomore from Indianapolis grew up near the White River and heard stories about the Wabash. “I’d always heard it’s really dirty, and that’s sad, because it’s a huge river that runs through the middle of the state,” Dible said.

Rivers throughout the heartland deserve better care. One tool in improving their water quality, Pregracke explained, is the implementation of “buffer strips” where farmground meets the river bank. Those strips of grasses or trees place a natural barrier between the tilled crops and waterways, mitigating the runoff of fertilizers or herbicides. The runoff of such chemicals into streams “affects everybody,” he added.

Pregracke also favors a bottle-deposit law, with a 5- or 10-cent refund on drink containers. Michigan maintains a bottle-deposit law, and “you don’t really find any bottles there, because they’re worth something,” he said.

Over time, various efforts are showing results. The Upper Mississippi Valley, from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn., for example, “has really changed, big time,” Pregracke said. “It’s really cool to be a part of a change.”

The same thing can happen along the Wabash, where visionary plans for greater recreational and wildlife experiences are under way, led by organizations such as Riverscape in Terre Haute. Pregracke has seen river cities such as Louisville, Ky.; Dubuque, Iowa; Memphis and Pittsburgh develop healthier, accessible riverfronts. “A lot of communities are really making [rivers] a centerpiece,” he said.

Obviously, those towns get the message. And it didn’t come floating in a bottle.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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