Sports Meets Science: German Endurance Swimmer Raises Awareness of American Water Quality

Aug 29, 2017

Credit Nicole Erwin, WKMS

  A German professor has finished swimming the entire Tennessee River for science - water quality science.  The endurance swimmer and scientist Dr. Andreas Fath wrapped up 652 miles Tuesday afternoon at Paducah’s riverfront.

Fath exited the river and hugged his son who joined him for the last leg of a 34-day venture in the first part of the TENNESWIM project--one of the most extensive water sampling surveys to take place on the Tennessee River.

Three years ago, Fath set a world record for swimming the Rhine River, which lines the Swiss Alps. Fath will compare the water samples taken here with those on the Rhine.

“We are just in time, this week is the 'World Water Week' for the United Nations, under the motto Keep it Clear. That is especially the motto we have, to keep it clear, but to keep it clear you have to know what is in there,” said Fath, slightly out of breath.

A team accompanied Fath, collecting samples to test for pharmaceuticals, pesticides, bacteria, and heavy metals. Fath’s own technique will be used to detect and analyze how micro-plastic particles could affect biodiversity in the waterway.

Andreas Fath and crew, less than 3 miles from Paducah's riverfront.
Credit Nicole Erwin, WKMS

  “Unfortunately the results, we don't have, we have some results but no the whole big thing. This takes a longer time, maybe until the end of the year. But I am very curious about the anthropogenic substances we will find in the Tennessee River in comparison to the Rhine.” Said Fath.

He said “cultural differences or daily living” comparisons and looking at the microplastics takes time and in depth analysis.

Physically however, Fath said the Rhine’s cooler temperatures and current allowed him to swim at least 46 miles a day, where the warmer and much more calm Tennessee River waters kept him at a maximum swim of 24 miles per day.

Andreas Fath after swimming from Knoxville, TN to Paducah KY.
Credit Nicole Erwin, WKMS

  Fath said the waters of the river have not impacted his skin quality or health and “that is a good sign.” But people and animals respond differently to environments, said Fath. The significant decrease in biodiversity in the river systems is a testament to changes in water quality.

“We are not the only creatures on Earth; there are Sturgeon in the water and other aquatic life. I don't want that in the year 2050 when I go diving that there are more plastics than fish. And this is the big concern, this program is to make people aware of their impact in their daily living." Fath said.

Several organizations joined Fath in the TENNESWIM project, including The Nature Conservancy.

“We are concerned about all the things that hydrologist and water scientist are concerned about, we work with landowners and farmers all over the Tennessee Watershed in reducing their inputs of things like, fertilizers, nitrogen and phosphates, reducing pesticide inputs. Of course all of us, everyday we are releasing pharmaceuticals and micro plastics into the rivers.” Said Communications Director Paul Kingsbury.

Scientific sampling of this size, according to Kingsbury, allows groups like the Nature Conservancy to be more effective in improving water filtration and river and stream conservation.  “It’s an amazing achievement for science,” said Kingsbury.

The science that is learned from the results won’t be kept in a “science vacuum,” he said.

“Certainly we do have state and federal agencies that are concerned about our water quality but none of them can undertake, you know sampling every 20 miles or so along the whole 652 miles of the Tennessee River for all of these various types of inputs into the river,” Kingsbury said.

Fath said he passed dead beavers, fish, and wastewater treatment plants throughout the journey--all elements to an “adventure story.”

“Combine it [an adventure story] with results, and this attracts people. Then I can maybe achieve more than writing a scientific review paper.” Fath said.

Fath said he is still analyzing data from his swim in the Rhine, but results from this adventure should be public by the end of this year.

This story has been edited to reflect a change in average miles swam per day. The earlier version said that Fath swam 70 miles per day on the Rhine, it has been changed to 46  miles a day.