Cleaning the rivers

Mission | July 24, 2016

Every morning, Dan Breidenstein wakes up on a barge on a river somewhere in the United States. He gets breakfast, sits in on the daily morning meeting, and then gets to work collecting garbage – or guiding and encouraging others as they do the same.

He is one of about 10 people who live most of the year on the barges of Living Lands & Waters, a nonprofit founded in the Quad Cities 18 years ago with a mission to clean up the garbage accumulating on the Mississippi River.

Dan initially went to school to become a computer engineer. Environmental work suits him much, much better.

“I know people say their jobs are different every day,” said Dan, who is the multimedia specialist and project coordinator for LL&W. “But really, it’s different every day out here.”

For Dan, it started with seeing a commercial advertising a LL&W cleanup in 2010. “I thought it would be cool to be a part of something bigger,” he said. So he grabbed a couple of family members and headed out to Buffalo, Iowa, to clean up garbage. “I fell in love with it.”

After spending spring breaks and an internship volunteering for LL&W, Dan now works for the organization full time. Chad Pregracke is his boss.


Chad grew up with the Mississippi River as his back yard, the organization’s story begins. Through his experiences of living and working on the river, he became appalled by the amount of debris dumped into the river. He tried to encourage state and federal agencies to clean up the river. Nothing happened. So he decided that if no one else would clean up the river, he would.

In 1997, Chad, then 22, single-handedly removed more than 45,000 pounds of trash from the Mississippi River with a small grant from Alcoa. The media began to take note, and support started to come in from a variety of organizations.

In 1998, Chad formed Living Lands & Waters. The mission is:

  • To aid in the protection, preservation, and restoration of the natural environment of our nation’s major rivers and their watersheds.
  • To expand awareness of environmental issues and responsibility encompassing our rivers.
  • To create a desire and opportunity for citizens to take an active role in helping to make a cleaner river environment.

Since its founding, LL&W has removed more than 8.7 million pounds of debris that had been impairing fish, bird, and wildlife habitat and polluting our waters. With a volunteer force of more than 95,000 volunteers, the LL&W team has helped clean up 23 rivers in 20 states.

LL&W has a full-time staff and an equipment base of five barges, two towboats, five workboats, seven trucks, a crane, an excavator, a bus and two skid loaders. Chad and his crew live on a house barge, traveling port to port up to nine months a year. They host community-based river cleanups, tree plantings, invasive species removal events, and educational workshops for educators and students.

This year, St. Paul added Living Lands & Waters to its benevolence giving. The organization will receive $2,000 to help support its efforts.


Dan’s bio calls him the guru of trash collecting. He also reportedly plays one mean kazoo. He described why working and volunteering for LL&W is so rewarding.

“The impact you make is first-hand. It’s very tangible,” he said. “You go to a shoreline and you remove garbage. First you see it filthy – covered in garbage. But in 45 minutes or an hour, with the help of everyone coming together, it’s clean.”


Trash stats

Living Lands & Waters has collected thousands of piece of garbage over the years. Here are a few highlights.

Shopping carts: 70

Toy dolls: 698

Cars/trucks/vans: 14

Bags of trash: 105,042

Balls: 23,512

TVs: 268

Ronald McDonald shoe: 1

Combine harvester: 1

Pianos: 4

Duck decoys: 273

Dishwashers: 69

Messages in a bottle: 78


How can you get involved?

Million Trees Project

The Million Trees Project is expanding the oak population one tree at a time. Since 2007, Living Lands & Waters staff have distributed or planted 1 million oak saplings in 16 states. These trees provide a vital habitat and viable food source for indigenous wildlife, and also increase water quality by filtering pollution and reducing erosion.

On Saturday, Aug. 13, from 9 a.m.-12 noon, pitch in at a nursery beautification event at the nursery near the Davenport Public Library, 6000 Eastern Ave., Davenport. For more information, visit

Adopt-a-river mile

The Adopt-A-River Mile program is an opportunity for individuals or groups to participate in by “adopting” a mile section of river shoreline. This program covers all U.S. waterways. By making this commitment, you agree to help beautify, restore, and maintain that section of river. For more information, visit

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