Dock under puffy clouds

Jori Chatman - A Day in the Life of a Watershed Representative

As sure as the sun comes up in the morning, Jori Chatman will be in her home office in Florence, Alabama, sorting through email, viewing property maps and planning site visits as she prepares for her day as a Section 26a permitter.

Chatman wasn’t always so well versed in this work.

“I didn’t even know it existed until I saw a post on the University of North Alabama job site,” she says. But it wasn’t until Chatman was hired that she realized the importance of this program to the people of the Tennessee Valley.

Most of her responsibilities are centered around Section 26a. This refers to part of the TVA Act of 1933. It ensures that any proposed obstructions on or along the Tennessee River or its tributaries are reviewed and are in alignment with TVA’s integrated management of the river for multiple public benefits. These include recreation, flood control, navigation, power generation and water quality.

Chatman’s main reservoirs are Pickwick, Wilson, Wheeler, Bear, and Cedar Creek.  A Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Business Administration make her a good candidate for this work, which relies heavily on project management and communication skills.

What does a watershed rep do?

With six years under her belt as a Watershed Representative, Chatman interacts with hundreds of people each year and finds that they have one thing in common.

“Most are surprised to learn that TVA owns the land or has land rights to flood the land on the reservoirs it manages.  The review of requests for construction or alternations along the shoreline does take time to ensure there are no environmental impacts or impacts to TVA’s operations. While TVA strives to have reviews completed and decisions made on requests within 100 days, sometimes that’s just not possible.”

One common issue is violations. If an applicant has purchased property without realizing that a structure on TVA property is in violation of TVA regulations, it often must be modified before an approved permit can be issued. That can cause significant delays to the process, according to Chatman.

Section 26a also has elements that are unique to certain locations due to land rights which can differ from one lot to the next, so Chatman gives everyone the benefit of the doubt.

“Many people who live on a reservoir may not be aware of TVA’s requirements. They may be unaware of Section 26a of the TVA Act, which is designed to ensure that construction along the shoreline and in the waters of the Tennessee River does not adversely impact or compromise TVA’s ability to manage the Tennessee River system. I start from the beginning, then explain the procedure and what is needed for them to start the application process.”

If there are any issues, she makes multiple visits. “Typically, I also visit if an applicant would like to meet on site or if I am not fully understanding their request.”

Permit us to help you

Perhaps this is why Nick Morris, Western Region manager of Reservoir Land Use and Permitting, describes the ideal relationship between the stakeholder and watershed representative as a symbiotic one. “We sometimes use the motto ‘Permit us to Help You.’  I would maybe tweak that to say ‘Help Us Help You,’ explains Morris.

Chatman and other watershed representatives can assist applicants with the review process if all necessary information is provided in the initial application package. “It allows us to conduct the site visit sooner and ultimately get their request in the hands of TVA’s expert reviewers more readily,” says Morris.

Much of this boils down to good communication skills. Applicants come from all walks of life and process information in different ways. Watershed representatives must explain this complex information on a regular basis.

Chatman finds no difficulty communicating with applicants. “I simply talk to them the way I want to be talked to.  I try to be straightforward with information.”

In the end, not everyone receives a permit.

“If a dock requires a redesign of facilities, I clarify the regulation and request a new plan. Sometimes I have to be stern to get the items needed to continue processing the application,” she explains. And sometimes, the problem cannot be solved with a redesign. In that case, Chatman reviews the situation with the applicant.

“I provide a map to better explain why their application was denied. Most of the time it works, and they understand, and of course, they can always appeal.

“At the end of the day, I enjoy the variety of people and the outreach opportunities. TVA’s mission is to serve the people of the Tennessee Valley, and watershed reps live that mission every day.”