Chad Pregracke, an Illinois man who has dedicated his lifeto cleaning the Mississippi River and other U.S. waterways, was named the 2013 CNN Hero of the Year on Tuesday night.
Pregracke organizes community cleanups across the country through his nonprofit, Living Lands & Waters. About 70,000 volunteers have pitched in, helping Pregracke collect more than 7 million pounds of trash in the past 15 years.
"The garbage got into the water one piece at a time," Pregracke said earlier this year. "And that's the only way it's going to come out."
Pregracke was recognized Tuesday night along with the rest of this year's top 10 CNN Heroes - everyday people doing extraordinary things to help change the world. He was chosen as Hero of the Year through a five-week public vote on CNN.com.
"I'll just keep on cleaning up America's rivers and loving every minute of it," said Pregracke as he accepted the award Tuesday night.
For being named CNN Hero of the Year, Pregracke receives $250,000 to continue his work. That is in addition to the $50,000 that each Hero receives for making the top 10.
On Tuesday night, Pregracke pledged to spread some of his Hero of the Year money to the rest of the top 10 Heroes: "I've met so many great people today, the other Heroes, and I'm really moved by all their stories and all the things they do around the world. ... I'm going to give 10 grand to each of them, because they're awesome."
Pregracke, 38, grew up in East Moline, Illinois, where the Mississippi River was in his backyard. As a teenager, he worked as a commercial shell diver and began to notice the heaps of debris in the fabled waterway, which supplies drinking water to 18 million people in more than 50 U.S. cities.
"I saw thousands of barrels, thousands of tires, cars, trucks and tops of school buses. ... I got sick of seeing it and just wanted to do something about it," said Pregracke, whom some have called "the rivers' garbageman."
For nine months out of the year, Pregracke lives on a barge with members of his 12-person crew. They go around the country with a fleet of boats, and they try to make cleanup fun for the volunteers who show up in each city.
"CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" airs Sunday, December 1, at 8 p.m. ET.