When he reached the downtown waterfront on Friday afternoon accompanied by members of Chattanooga Open Water Swimmers, scientist and endurance athlete Dr. Andreas Fath was nine days into TenneSwim, an ambitious project to swim and test the water quality of the 652-mile Tennessee River.
Since entering the river at its confluence in Knoxville, Tenn., Dr. Fath has traveled 188 miles, the equivalent to driving from Nashville to Birmingham, Ala., or from New York City to Providence, R.I.
At an average pace of 2.3 miles per hour, the 52-year-old professor of medical and life sciences at Furtwangen University is burning around 10,000 calories — about three and a half large cheese pizzas — every day.
Even though he’s swum three times farther this week than Michael Phelps does when training for the Olympics, however, Dr. Fath still has more than 460 miles to go before he reaches the river’s mouth (and TenneSwim’s finish line) in Paducah, Ky. He is scheduled to arrive there later this month.
Reaching Paducah will be a monumental athletic accomplishment and will set a new world record for swimming the length of the Tennessee River, but physical superlatives are just a bonus. The real achievement, Dr. Fath says, will be an unprecedented, comprehensive evaluation of the health of the river, courtesy of a suite of analyses he and his team are conducting.
Their tests — the results of which won’t be fully available until several months after TenneSwim is complete — will provide data on a range of water quality indicators, from dissolved oxygen levels and acidity to concentrations of chemicals such as pesticides and traces of pharmaceuticals.
On Thursday, Dr. Fath and his team drove into Chattanooga from their stopping point for the day to attend a public event at the Tennessee Aquarium. Speaking to an audience in the auditorium of the River Journey building, Dr. Fath talked about the challenges of undertaking such an epic project, revealed preliminary results from the first week of testing and discussed his expectations for how the Tennessee River’s health would compare to that of Germany’s Rhine River, which he swam and tested in 2014.
Dr. Fath’s arrival in August coincides with National Water Quality Month and a recent, startling report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico has reached record proportions. This region of the ocean contains oxygen levels low enough to imperil fish and marine life. According to the NOAA release, it now comprises 8,776 square miles — an area larger than the state of New Jersey.
One cause of this oxygen-depleted zone is nutrient pollution caused by algal growth resulting from agricultural and developed land runoff in the Mississippi River watershed. Among the 600 substances Dr. Fath is testing for during TenneSwim are persistent organic pollutants, substances such as pesticides and other chemicals used by farmers and land owners.
“All of this stuff you can find in rivers because our waste treatment processes aren’t capable of eliminating them,” Dr. Fath says. “I love water. I like to swim in clean water. I want to make people aware of water quality, of their impact on water quality. Everything goes into the water at the end of the day.”
One of the other water quality indicators Dr. Fath and his team are evaluating is the amount of microplastics in the river. Whether created through the erosion of larger objects or produced at that size as microbeads, fragments of plastic less than 5 millimeters in size have become a global pandemic that have worked their way into the food chain, including humans who consume contaminated seafood.
While conducting a similar swim and analysis of the Rhine River in 2014, Dr. Fath used a technique he pioneered to analyze the amount of microplastics being transported by the river into the North Sea. His testing found that just the surface waters of the river were carrying an average of eight tons of microplastics each year.
“Literally, this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Fath says. “Actual microplastics pollution in the Rhine is most likely many times higher.”
The results of the Rhine study have Dr. Fath’s American counterparts in conservation especially concerned about how plastic pollution could be impacting bodies of water such as the Tennessee River, which is North America’s most biologically diverse river.
“Unfortunately, sometimes when humans are out enjoying nature, we’re not just leaving our tracks behind, we’re leaving a little bit more,” says Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s Vice President of Conservation Science and Education. “Here in the U.S., we have a growing problem with a large amount of plastic ending up in our waterways, and it’s not just an eyesore, it’s really damaging for our aquatic environment. We hope that the Swim for Science inspires us all to reduce, reuse, and recycle so that our river is safe for recreation – whether it’s an afternoon float with your family or a 652-mile journey.”
How you can help
Water covers most of the earth’s surface, but only about 2.5 percent of it is fresh water. Of that, less than 1 percent is easily accessible for human use. That makes every drop — and every individual action that could impact a waterway — critically important. Here are five ways you can safeguard the rivers, lakes and streams near you:
· Don’t Flush Your Meds — Any pharmaceuticals you flush down the toilet or pour down the sink inevitably end up in a body of water. As part of its National Take-Back Initiative, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has authorized thousands of collectors who can safely dispose of unused medication for you. Find a collector near you by using the search tool at www.deadiversion.usdoj.gov/drug_disposal/takeback/
or calling 1-800-882-9539.
· Skip the straw — Plastic is the most prevalent type of debris in aquatic environments, and single-use plastics, such as drinking straws, are a major source of this pollution. Over time, these items break down but don’t fully biodegrade, creating fragments (microplastics) that can be consumed by animals, impacting their ability to feed as well as contaminating the seafood people enjoy. Instead of a plastic straw, use an alternative, reusable sipping device made from paper, metal, glass or even bamboo.
· Fertilize with Care — Using too much fertilizer can affect your plants’ ability to absorb water and can contaminate nearby streams when the excess is carried away by stormwater run-off. To prevent this, follow the label instructions carefully to mix the fertilizer accurately and only use it during the appropriate time of year.
· Don’t Go Down the Drain — Storm drains are like superhighways that transport chemicals, unfiltered and untreated, into local waterways. Do a web search to find local hazardous waste disposal sites near you rather than risk a fine or damage to a nearby stream.
· Jump In! — Stricter government regulations have made many waterways safe for human recreation, but that wasn’t always the case. You can now fish, swim, paddle or otherwise enjoy many of the rivers, lakes and streams near you because of the clean water regulations of the past 45 years. By making use of these waterways, you’ll show legislators that communities value the cleaner water these laws made possible.