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Scenic view of a lake during autumn

Emily Collins - A Day in the Life of a Watershed Representative

When friends or family ask Emily Collins what she does for a living, the watershed representative keeps it simple. “Rocks and docks,” is her initial reply. But it’s a bit more involved than that.

“Any construction activity across, along, or in the Tennessee River or its tributaries requires a Section 26a permit, often called a shoreline permit. This could be for stabilizing the shoreline with rocks, construction of a dock, or even land-based structures, depending on where they lie in relation to certain contour elevations,” she explains. 

These permits ensure the compatibility of the proposed construction activity with flood control, navigation, reservoir recreation, power generation, land management, and environmental protection mandates. TVA’s goal is to protect land and shoreline resources while supporting access to public lands and waters, according to Rebecca Hayden, TVA Natural Resources.

Due to COVID restrictions, Collins teleworks from her home near Cherokee Reservoir. Her desk holds a computer and two large black monitors, indispensable tools for viewing maps, project plans, and drawings. Her morning e-mail usually reveals new Section 26a permit applications assigned by her program manager. “The volume varies; I’ve gotten as many as six new applications in one day.”

Collins starts her to-do list and reviews any items she was unable to take care of the previous day. “I’ll do a quick run-through of my projects, noting any that can be closed, and work to get the permits issued and out the door.”

The watershed representative is as likely to be on the road as at her desk. “When I have a heavy workload, I can be in the field a couple of days a week, running the reservoirs and doing the site inspections.”

Sites often are spread out across a reservoir. Collins tries to schedule her field days so sites are close, but that doesn’t always work. “I can spend almost an hour driving between sites, depending on the location of the applications,” most of which are on Cherokee and Douglas Reservoirs, as well as the French Broad and Holston Rivers. No wonder she mentions “teleportation” as an enviable superpower.

If it sounds like Collins is a time management guru, she is, and she’s not alone. Time management, along with outstanding project management and communication skills, are must-have competencies for watershed representatives, according to Anthony Summitt, Eastern Region manager of Reservoir Land Use and Permitting.

Back at her desk, she works on assignments that are further along, such as completed site inspections that still need an environmental review. “Preparing the package for review is time-consuming and includes creating and uploading site photos, maps, plans, and other forms necessary for the reviewers.” Other TVA teams that also may need to weigh in include River Management, Cultural Compliance, Biological Compliance, Customer Service and sometimes Transmission Planning and Projects.

“If I have newly assigned projects, I’ll also work on these while making initial contact with applicants, providing updates on in-process requests, and preparing for and scheduling my next round of site inspections,” she says.

If there is one thing that Collins and her colleagues understand about shoreline permitting, it is that not all assignments are created equal. “The ones I tend to have the most difficult time with are applications with pre-existing violations or encroachments.” A Section 26a permit cannot be issued until these matters are resolved, which Collins says “can take a great deal of time and effort for both parties, depending on the situation.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge has been the overall permitting workload, which has increased 50% since 2019. Typically, TVA reviews and approves approximately 1,500 construction permits each year.

“The workload was increasing before the pandemic, but once it hit, applications went through the roof and haven’t slowed down,” says Collins.

TVA has hired more contractors and also has helped Collins, and her colleagues set more reasonable expectations for applicants. “I let them know up front that due to the volume of applications, processing times are longer than usual,” she says. This message is repeated on the permitting page, which also includes a new graphic and video that detail the process.

Although COVID is making a resurgence, Collins feels confident. “It’s still going to be challenging, but we know what to expect and are better prepared to handle it.”

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