WASHINGTON – Chad Pregracke (search) thought the trash along the Mississippi River was bad. Then he flew over the Potomac River in Washington.
"I couldn't believe that, here in our own nation's capital, one of the most powerful countries in the world, you would have so much garbage in it," said Pregracke.
Pregracke, 30, has been called a modern day Huckleberry Finn, but the Illinois native doesn't consider himself as naïve, or as carefree, as Mark Twain's famous character. "I'm not just floating down on a raft, it's not my style," he told FOXNews.com.
Born in East Moline, Ill., on the banks of the Mississippi, he's dedicated his life's work to cleaning up the river as it runs through several states, taking 900 tons of trash from one community at a time. He has a full-time crew of eight who live and work on a barge that gets them to their next destination.
"I don't know what to say without being cheesy, but it's kind of my life, it's where I feel most at home," Pregracke told FOXNews.com. "If I'm away too long I feel like I'm not in the right place … all of my past experiences on the river led me to what I'm doing right now."
After receiving a Jefferson Award for Public Service (search), presented to him by First Lady Laura Bush in 2002, Pregracke got an eyeful of the local D.C pollution when taking off from Reagan National Airport. He became inspired to expand his group, Living Lands & Waters (search), to the East Coast.
"I went out there for the first time and, I'm not kidding, out in some places [the volunteers] were two feet deep in garbage," he said. "In some regards it was one of the worst places that I've ever been. It's been a learning experience in so many ways, but a great one."
On Earth Day (search), Friday, Pregracke and hundreds of volunteers will have completed their second annual cleanup on the stretch of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers that cradle some of the most familiar symbols of the nation: the Washington Monument and the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials.
Using a barge and boats supplied by his group's sponsor, Kansas-based Koch Industries (search), Pregracke's team and about 800 volunteers from numerous coalitions have been pulling garbage out of the rivers for three weeks. Last year they netted 52 tons.
"In D.C. I think we've made a pretty good dent," said Pregracke, who spent his summers as a teenager shell-diving and commercial fishing in the Mississippi before putting together the Living Lands & Waters project as a college student in 1997.
"We have all these people who haven't participated in a cleanup before, getting out there," he said. "From Redskins cheerleaders to people from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to members of Congress," he added, "that's amazing, that people care so much."
And they certainly get up close and personal with the detritus of peoples' lives. Pregracke has reported that volunteers have pulled out ATM machines, major household appliances, prosthetic limbs, bathtubs, bowling balls — even more than 60 bottles with messages, some lovelorn, others suicide notes.
"There is a significant trash problem in the region and it's not being addressed proactively by the (D.C.) mayor and county leaders in Maryland and Virginia," said Tracy Bowen, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation (search), which has been helping to sponsor cleanups in the capital region for 17 years, collecting more than two million tons of such trash in that time. "The cleanups are great but they are not solving the problem."
Nonetheless, the Alice Ferguson Foundation has helped to pull 186 tons of garbage from the Potomac watershed area during this year's Annual Potomac River Watershed Cleanup, which incorporated 4,392 volunteers from area conservation groups in tandem with Pregracke's effort and other cleanups this month. They were also able to get city and county leaders to sign the Potomac River Watershed Trash Treaty in March.
"We really need a regional approach — if one county doesn't do it, you're not going to get anywhere," she said.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Anthony Williams (search), after signing the Trash Treaty, underscored that notion.
"The trash and pollution flowing through the Potomac watershed do not respect the political boundaries that crosscut the region," said Williams. "Collaboration among leaders from the watershed region will bring about long-term solutions to our shared trash problems — and a collaborative effort will be much more effective than one jurisdiction working alone."
As for Pregracke, Bowen said he's been an exciting figure for their movement, gracing national magazines and making appearances on television news programs and documentaries, blending his inborn love for the river with the cause that they all share.
"It's really great — he's kind of a national spokesman on trash," she said.
Mary Beth Jarvis, a spokeswoman with Koch Industries, said Pregracke was an inspiration to all of them. She said Koch signed on as the principal sponsor of Living Lands & Waters after seeing his team in action during work they did on the Mississippi River in Minnesota.
"The amount of good they were able to do in a limited amount of time was simply wonderful — we started talking about where else in the country we could pair up," she said.
"Chad is about responsibility, taking a look in your backyard, see what needs help fixing — and he does that," said Jarvis. "I think he inspires lots of people to join the movement."
Pregracke, who doesn't seem to harbor any notions of personal righteousness, says simply that the river is his life, and helping to keep it flowing is his business. Though it may appear to be a fool's errand, he said, there are places on the Mississippi that haven't needed their help since.
"On the Mississippi River, I can tell you it's working," he said, hoping that that those successes will someday be repeated in Washington. "People are trying to see the river as a treasure and I think it's happening all over — I'm not claiming to solve anything."