It's a beautiful day, even for early March. The sun is shining, it's warm, and a number of boats are parked in a marina at McKellar Lake in South Memphis.
But despite the nice weather, not everything is so rosy. A flat-bottom boat is pushing through mounds of floating trash to get to the boat ramp where press and city officials wait to be taken to a barge.
On that barge is Chad Pregracke, CNN's 2013 "Hero of the Year" and founder of Living Lands and Waters, who was in town for a "floating press conference" where he expressed his gratitude to the Memphis River Warriors and government officials for their ongoing efforts to try and stay on top of efforts to clean up the trash in McKellar Lake.
- Alexandra Pusateri
- Bags of trash collected from McKellar Lake.
The conference was held on the barge that the group travels on to clean up polluted waterways across the country. Living Lands and Waters visits McKellar Lake routinely, and the organization has removed over half a million pounds of trash from the lake, but Pregracke said there are more than 460 pounds of trash every two miles.
"It's one of the worst places I've ever been. Never seen anything like [this]," Pregracke said.
McKellar Lake is a runoff from Nonconnah Creek where some of the city's storm drains are emptied. The trash in the storm drains eventually winds up in McKellar Lake. The lake is also used as an illegal dumping site for items such as tires.
One proposed solution has included "oil booms," which Rocky Morrison, founder of the Clean River Project in Massachusetts, has experience organizing. According to him, the long, floating tubes would "corral the trash" and gather the wood for recycling.
For the cleanup efforts, Pregracke said if the county opts for the oil booms, constant cleanup of the lake would no longer be required. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has not said whether or not the county will move forward with that option.
"That would help Memphis," Pregracke said. "It would make [the lake] clean. It's discouraging because there's still so much out there. If those were implemented, it would be like night and day. This whole place would be cleaned up once and for all."
- Alexandra Pusateri
- Trash floating in McKellar Lake.
What used to be a destination for skiing and vacationing in the 1950s and '60s has become overrun with tires and bottles — recyclable debris that the Memphis River Warriors gather.
Colton Cockrum organizes the Memphis River Warriors on the banks of the lake one Saturday of nearly every month. Three years ago, the organization started at McKellar when University of Memphis students and Cockrum, their advisor, joined Living Lands and Waters in a cleanup. Since then, the River Warriors have expanded into the community with a diverse group of volunteers. Since Pregracke's barge is always traveling and only stops in Memphis occasionally, Cockrum says he's been told if his organization wasn't out there, nobody would be.
"There are decades of trash accumulation," Cockrum said. "For some reason, people are drawn to the river [to help clean it up]."
The Memphis River Warriors operate with no budget, dealing strictly with volunteers and donations from Memphis City Beautiful. The group will meet again for a Saturday cleanup on March 22nd and then celebrate its three-year anniversary with a cleanup on April 26th.
"If McKellar Lake was used today like it was 30 years ago, there would be outrage at how it looks," Cockrum said. "I don't think a lot of people know what is going on down there."