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First Tennessee River Tour Builds Momentum for Cleaning Waterways

This week marks the end of the environmental group Living Lands and Waters’ first tour down the Tennessee River to raise awareness of water pollution. The group’s touring barge is anchored at the Paducah Riverport through Thursday to wrap up its speaker series, give boat tours and host educational workshops. At the confluence of the Tennessee River and Ohio River, Living Lands and Waters conducted the last cleanup of its first tour down the Tennessee.

Aluminum boats ferried clean-up volunteers from Paducah’s main boat ramp to a unique towboat, covered in painted scenes of farmland, aquatic life, and cities. Solar panels and found items from hundreds of river cleanups, like creepy baby dolls and old signs, accent the tin-roofed house barge.

Living Lands and Waters Founder Chad Pegracke kicked off the final stop of the months long tour aboard his ship.

“We’ve done over 100 events this year alone. We started mid-February and it’s be a great season so far,” Pegracke said.

After lunch and an opening ceremony, 141 volunteers zoomed about a mile down river to collect trash. Unlike other cleanups where most volunteers are community members, these people represent various companies in the Marine Industry that sponsor the organization.

Joe Brantley with American Electric Power River Operations guarded a collection of odd items he had found combing the river bank.

“We got a internal contest with AEP River Operations to sort of drive people coming, and whoever can find the most unusual trinket. And then we got a big old duffel bag AEP prize and you get a day off with pay if yours is the coolest. So, I got a duck, a baby duck, a lion, a plastic toy golf driving club with the ball,” Brantley said. 

Almost every volunteer had filled their bag half full with bits of trash within the first half hour. Things too big or heavy for bags, like tires, rusty propane tanks, and what looked to be a civil war era artillery shell are all packed back to the shore as they’re found. After an hour and a half, the volunteers had gathered almost 7,000 pounds of garbage.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2012 more than 21,000 miles of assessed rivers and streams in Tennessee and Kentucky didn’t support “designated uses” like fish consumption, aquatic life, and recreation due to pollution and hydromodification like dams.

Jody Acree with Marquette Transportation feels compelled to clean the river because it provides his family’s livelihood. Acree brought his son Eli for his first cleanup.

“People eat fish, and we need to keep the fish healthy. We don’t want them eating a bunch of trash, so the things that eat fish are healthy, too,” Eli said.

At each stop along the Tennessee River, Living Lands and Waters hosts workshops for school kids to learn about river industries and the importance of clean waters.

“Getting the river clean and keeping it clean is two different things, so you’ve got to mix education in with it,” Pegracke said. “We focus on high school kids, and truthfully a lot of people say, ‘oh, the kids are our future,’ and that’s true. But they’re also the present, and they can make big change.”

Pegracke said the organization came to the Tennessee because of requests and support from cities, environmental groups, and industries along the river. But the partnership between these groups will not fade after the river tour is over.

“We went there but now we’re gone. So, what’s the lasting effect? So, what we’re working on with Keep Tennessee Beautiful and TVA is an entire Tennessee River Sweep, which we’re going to work with a lot of different partners at putting it all together. But that’s what’s cool, that’s what’s lasting. And that’s really important to us. The momentum we build in places, we want to keep it going whatever it takes to do,” Pegracke said.

The First Tennessee River Tour resulted in crew members and volunteers planting 1,800 shrubs and trees and collecting 17,000 pounds of trash. The crew also hosted 17 educational workshops and 5 open houses.

Pegracke feels his efforts have helped improve how people treat water. He said there is much more work to do but the magnitude of the task does not overwhelm him. He said he is always moving forward, staying focused on his work to restore health to America’s waterways.

Living Lands and Waters tour concludes its Tennessee River Tour speaker series Wednesday with officials from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. at the foot of Broadway in Paducah.

A proud native of Murray, Kentucky, Allison grew up roaming the forests of western Kentucky and visiting national parks across the country. She graduated in 2014 from Murray State University where she studied Environmental Sustainability, Television Production, and Spanish. She loves meeting new people, questioning everything, and dancing through the sun and the rain. She hopes to make a positive impact in this world several endeavors at a time.
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