by Whit Gibbons

October 25, 2015

I talked to a real hero last week. Not a gunslinger, undercover agent or sports figure, but someone who deserved the recognition he got by being named CNN's Hero of the Year in 2013.

Chad Pregracke's recognition evolved from his teenage goal of trying to remove all of the trash, litter, garbage and whatever else didn't belong in the river he spent his childhood on.

Chad's story started more than 20 years ago when he set out on a mission to remove trash that had been dumped into the Mississippi River and its tributaries.

Because of his own industriousness - and the support of his family, who lived along the river and applauded his good intentions - he was able to inspire others to help him clean up the river.

The statistics are staggering. He has had more than 90,000 volunteers help with the effort. Chad and his army of people who care about our waterways have removed more than 60,000 tires from rivers.

The disturbing part of this fact is how the tires got there in the first place. A tire doesn't just fall off a car and roll into a river. Someone intentionally puts it there.

According to one report, Chad and his volunteers have hauled more than 3,500 tons - not pounds, but tons - of trash out of waterways that should have been used primarily by boaters, swimmers and anglers. Included in that statistic are tons of bottles and cans.

Among the big-ticket items have been more than a dozen tractors, more than 200 washing machines, 1,000-plus refrigerators and probably tens of thousands of 50-gallon drums. He has even found a school bus and at least four pianos. Some people have made a mess of our rivers and streams.

I see the problem on a much smaller scale on a beautiful, clear creek my grandchildren and I visit.

On a canoe trip before I met Chad, we returned to our landing to photograph six caterpillars we had found on vegetation along the creek. In the bottom of the canoe we had an old Clorox bottle, a candy wrapper and a Styrofoam cup, items we had picked up in creekside plants and tree roots.

All had entered the water from somewhere upstream, probably where the creek goes under a highway. The removal of litter from streams is a never-ending chore for canoeists, kayakers and other boaters who want to keep natural waterways looking natural.

Littering was condemned as an inconsiderate and irresponsible act decades ago, and subsequently the amount of highway trash has diminished around the country.

Part of the cleaner look in many areas is a result of adopt-a-highway programs in which organizations schedule periodic efforts to pick up roadside litter.

For waterways, the problem is exacerbated because of people who intentionally dump trash, people who do not appreciate that our natural waterways are national treasures.

Some of the smaller items get into streams from litter that started off on land and was eventually washed into the water from runoff or flooding.

Chad's story is an amazing one. He struck me as a very unassuming individual who simply went about doing what he thought he should and fortunately got the recognition he deserved.

No one person can remove the litter from all the magnificent waterways of the country, but all of us can join together in an attempt to clean up our rivers, streams and creeks.

Do what you can to support riverkeepers wherever they may be. And be sure you aren't part of the problem: remember to carefully dispose of that candy wrapper, Clorox bottle or Styrofoam cup.

We need to recognize that many other heroes roam the rivers and streams nationwide and are doing their part to clean up the mess other people make.

Identify the riverkeeper heroes in your area. We should also identify the villains - people who throw trash into rivers and industries that intentionally pollute them. Their actions are inexcusable.

If you have an environmental question or comment, email

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