Jim Seida  /  MSNBC.com
Founder of Living Land and Waters Chad Pregracke stands among piles of garbage he and his team removed from the Misssissippi River. By his calculations, the cleanups have now removed more than 2 million pounds of trash from the river.

Possessed of boundless energy and optimism, the 29-year-old Chad Pregracke (pronounced preh-GRAK-ee) has taken on a job that no one wanted – cleaning up the junk that has accumulated over the years on the banks of the Mississippi.

And while he’s not close to declaring victory in his war on refuse, he is making a dent.

Pregracke estimates that he and his crew have removed more than 2 million pounds of trash from the river since he started on a shoestring budget in 1997. Today, the non-profit Living Lands & Waters that he established has developed into an organized strike force with a $600,000 annual budget and well-heeled corporate sponsors like Alcoa, Anheuser-Busch, Cargill and numerous barge companies.

Pregracke’s operation also has grown from the days when he and a few friends would scour the river’s banks from an old fishing boat. Today, his multicolored towboat and four barges – three laden with piles of garbage reclaimed from the river and the fourth floating the living quarters for Pregracke and his crew – are a common sight on the river between St. Louis (and occasionally farther south) and Minneapolis.

Pregracke’s crusade earned him the a presidential Jefferson Award for public service, which he received from first lady Laura Bush in June 2002.

While Pregracke’s knack for organization and fund-raising have taken him far, his ability to inspire young and old alike with his willingness to jump into the muck and work alongside his crew and volunteers is what has made him a hero to people up and down the river.

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