Lyndhurst and Riverview Foundations Back Novel Science on the River

June 14, 2017

Bruz Clark, president of Lyndhurst and Riverview Foundations

‌(Bruz Clark, president of the Lyndhurst and Riverview Foundations, at the Sewanee Constructed Wetlands, which has been supported by Riverview. The foundations take seriously a commitment to freshwater quality as demonstrated by grants to Sewanee in support of Tenneswim and the constructed wetlands.)

Starting In late July and lasting about a month, Sewanee and partners will be launching the Tenneswim project, an end-to-end characterization of the Tennessee River: its general health, the presence of microplastics and heavy metals, the health of river fauna, and other measures. That study will take place in a remarkable way, with a German scientist, Andreas Fath, who is also a long distance, open water swimmer, swimming the entire length of the river, from the confluence of the French Broad and Holston Rivers to the Ohio in western Kentucky, and it is sponsored in part by two Chattanooga Foundations-- Riverview Foundation and Lyndhurst Foundation--that have an interest in building a thriving community in the Tennessee Valley.

“This project hits a number of interests of the trustees of both the Lyndhurst Foundation and the Riverview Foundation,” notes Bruz Clark, president of both foundations, which have been important sponsors of the project. “Conservation is a shared interest, and we particularly like the multi-disciplinary aspect of this project. We are very much interested in and have invested in conservation of aquatic habitat, and we are also interested in outdoor recreation and physical health.”

The project director for Sewanee is Martin Knoll, C’82, professor of geology, who made the initial connections with Fath, has worked tirelessly on fundraising, and who has involved students and other researchers from multiple institutions. “We are enormously grateful for the support from Lyndhurst and Riverview,” says Knoll. “Without their contributions, we would not have been able to launch this important scientific and public education project.”

Others may contribute to the project through a GoFundMe site that has been developed by Knoll, Fath, and Nussbaum at https://www.gofundme.com/swimming-the-tn-river-for-science.

“Every dollar we receive from here on out will make the project better and enhance our public outreach,” notes Knoll.

The project has twin goals: learning more about the water quality along the entire course of the river and raising public awareness of the river and its condition. Sewanee’s partners, the University of Georgia River Basin Center, the University of Furtwangen, Germany, the Tennessee Aquarium, the Nature Conservancy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority are all involved in aspects of the project.

The idea comes from a German scientist, Andreas Fath, who is also a long distance swimmer. During the summer of 2014 Fath broke the world record for speed swimming the Rhine River from its source in the Swiss Alps to its confluence with the North Sea. This 28-day, 765-mile swim was more than an exceptional athletic achievement. Fath took daily water samples that provided an unprecedented look at the quality of water within this historic river. Fath’s next feat is Tenneswim, which will shed important light on the quality and health of the Tennessee River with the main goal of raising public awareness of water quality in the Tennessee River basin.

Clark is also impressed with how the project draws attention to outdoor recreation and physical health. “What Fath is doing is an overwhelming physical achievement, and that is certainly part of what draws us to the project,” he says.

Public education and the arts are focal areas for the Lyndhurst Foundation in southeast Tennessee, and public education is a primary goal of the project.  A planned photographic exhibition, conceived by Sewanee Professor of Art Pradip Malde, will document the presence of plastics in the river.

The partnership of Sewanee, the University of Georgia, and the Tennessee Aquarium is another axis of interest to the foundations. A University of Georgia graduate student is managing public communication about the project with a website and other social media presence. That student, Phillipp Nussbaum, is also a partner on another project partly sponsored by the Riverview Foundation, Sewanee’s constructed wetland, which is a collaboration between Sewanee, University of Georgia and the Sewanee Utility District to study how a constructed wetland can improve wastewater treatment. While the wetland is funded by the Coca-Cola Foundation and Coca-Cola Bottling UNITED, the Riverview Foundation has generously supported the University of Georgia’s contributions to the study. Nussbaum has been doing research on public attitudes toward water and water treatment and has put together an informative website on Sewanee water.

The public will be able to track Fath’s daily progress via a website that will include analytical results and science activities for elementary to high school-age students. (http://www.tenneswim.org/, which currently links to Fath’s website in Germany) A documentary film will chronicle his journey and the water quality status of the river. Partner organizations such as Ijams Nature Center, the Tennessee Aquarium, and the Nature Conservancy will promote the swim to enhance public awareness of the health of the Tennessee River.

“This project fits very well with our involvement in the Thrive 2055,” notes Clark, referring to a multi-county, years-long planning program in a tri-state area surrounding Chattanooga that has been helping guide responsible development that preserves community values and natural treasures.

A team of researchers and students will accompany Fath, collecting daily water samples that will be analyzed for pharmaceuticals, pesticides, bacteria, and heavy metals. Fath’s own pioneering technique will be used to detect micro-plastic particles suspended in water, to which numerous contaminants adhere. Additionally, special instrumentation will be attached to the swimmer to permit the location of river sturgeon that were released recently by the Tennessee Aquarium.

Fish and other aquatic life will be collected to gauge their health as well. Researchers from the University of the South, the University of Georgia, the University of Alabama, the Tennessee Aquarium, and other institutions will collaborate on the most extensive, interdisciplinary water quality survey to have ever taken place on this river. Graduate and undergraduate students will participate in data collection and analysis, as well as in the organization of this complex endeavor.

The river swim will be a first step in the entire project. Dissemination in both professional journals and in settings addressing the general public are key to the project. Following the swim, the project team will assess results of water testing and develop educational materials and scientific papers. 

“Freshwater preservation is a big part of what we do at Lyndhurst and Riverview, and we think Tenneswim is a wonderful collaboration between outstanding institutions in our area to meet that goal,” notes Clark.