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Lake of Trash

Volunteers haul away thousands of pounds of garbage.

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In the 1950s, McKellar Lake was teeming with water-skiers, houseboats, rowboats, and gorgeous ladies competing in the Miss McKellar Lake contest. Today, the lake on Presidents Island doubles as an unofficial city dump.

Over the past several weeks, volunteers with Living Lands and Waters, a traveling nonprofit environmental group specializing in river and lake cleanup, hauled in more than 10,000 pounds of plastic bottles, basketballs, tires, appliances, and even a prosthetic leg found floating in McKellar Lake.

College students from across the country, including a group from the University of Memphis, gave up their spring break vacations to help the organization clean up trash in Memphis.

"This is one of the worst places I've ever seen," said Living Lands and Waters founder Chad Pregracke. Using 30-foot flat-bottomed boats and a customized barge, the group has cleaned trash from nearly 500 sites along the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and Potomac rivers since they began in 1998.

Pregracke said much of the trash in McKellar Lake begins as litter thrown into the street. When it rains, that debris is washed into storm drains, down Nonconnah Creek, and into McKellar Lake. He said larger items, like the refrigerators, may come from people directly dumping their trash into the lake.

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Although much of the litter is made from recyclable materials, Pregracke said it is nearly impossible for his small crew to sort and wash out each plastic bottle or aluminum can. They are, however, recycling the old tires recovered from the lake. The appliances will be sent to a scrap yard where they'll be salvaged for parts.

"I'm almost certain that if people knew what was going on out here, they would think twice about what they throw away and where they throw it away," said Edward Bempong, who volunteered with a group from the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Colton Cockrum, assistant director of the Hardin Honors program at the University of Memphis, led a team of 25 student volunteers.

"This is preventable from a citizen standpoint, because we should be recycling and not throwing things into the street," Cockrum said. "But it's also preventable from a city standpoint. They should install something that would catch whatever comes out of Nonconnah Creek so it wouldn't get piled up like this."

Although volunteers and the Living Land and Waters crew were able to pull out thousands of pounds of trash, they weren't able to remove all of the debris before they were scheduled to leave last Thursday. There's still a considerable amount of litter floating near the banks of McKellar Lake.

The city's storm water program, the Division of Community Enhancement, and Memphis City Beautiful are organizing a clean-up to begin when the water recedes.

"The water can be hazardous, so it's our opinion that we wait until the water level subsides. Then we can pick the trash up from land," said Memphis City Beautiful executive director Eldra White.

Cockrum is hoping to organize a local effort with Friends for Our Riverfront to finish the job in April.

"Living Lands and Waters had the boats, the barge, and the trash bags. We're back at zero now. We don't have anything, but we're going to try to coordinate with some of the industries on Presidents Island," Cockrum said. "We have to find a way to get that trash out."

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