Justin Ehrenwerth and the Water Institute of the Gulf Put Science into Practice
Justin Ehrenwerth understands the practical impact of using science to guide leadership.
“I appreciate the need for science that directly informs a policy discussion,” the YPO member explains, “taking the best available science and applying it to a specific question bound by realistic alternatives, meaning ‘How much money do we have?’ or ‘What are the regulatory parameters we’re working within?’”
In a decade when flooding and sea level rise are hot button issues worldwide, it’s a concept few organizations put into practice as directly as the Water Institute of the Gulf, which Ehrenwerth leads.
“The Water Institute fills that very important niche better than any organization I’m aware of in the Gulf,” he says.
Headquartered in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the institute was founded in 2011 with the mission of connecting academic, public and private research providers, and conducting applied research to serve communities and industry in the region. Ehrenwerth came on board as president and CEO in 2017.
Leadership and science
An attorney by training, Ehrenwerth spent the early part of his career at the office of the U.S. Secretary of Commerce in Washington, D.C., and it was there he began his work with coastal issues.
“The misnomer about the commerce department is that it’s exclusively business and trade and industry, when approximately 65% of its budget is the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which of course is a major environmental and weather organization,” he says.
When Ehrenwerth arrived, some of the department’s most significant challenges were being addressed through NOAA. His experience grew after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the largest such event in U.S. waters. His department, NOAA in particular, was crucial in responding to the spill, and Ehrenwerth found himself in the thick of that response.
From D.C. to Louisiana
Ehrenwerth’s work relative to Deepwater Horizon led him to the Office of the White House Counsel in 2011. There, he continued that work as the response moved into litigation. In July 2012, the Senate passed the RESTORE Act, aimed at allocating the civil and administrative penalties stemming from the spill.
“Instead of putting [those penalties] in a typical trust fund,” says Ehrenwerth, “they created a new framework to bring that money back to the Gulf Coast where the incident occurred, so people from the five Gulf Coast states would benefit. That work was all about economic development and ecosystem restoration.”
The RESTORE Act was signed into law in 2012, and part of that framework was a new agency, the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. Ehrenwerth stepped up to lead the council, and in 2013, traded Washington for New Orleans.
“I couldn’t resist the opportunity to do something entrepreneurial within government,” he says. “You don’t often have a chance to start a new federal agency, and this was the largest environmental restoration initiative in the nation’s history.”
Ehrenwerth’s time on the council showed him the value of applied science, and it was his first introduction to the Water Institute. When he was approached to become its president and CEO — only the second since its founding — he jumped at the chance.
Bridging community, leadership and science
What sets the Water Institute apart from other agencies doing work in the same vein is the diversity of scientific talent it brings together under one roof.
“We have numerical modelers and applied geoscientists and ecologists, and what I think makes us particularly innovative is what we call our human dimensions department,” Ehrenwerth explains. “That’s a group that helps us bridge the gap between the physical, natural sciences and the social sciences.”
Ehrenwerth is particularly proud of a recent project in Port Fourchon, Louisiana. The port services 90% of the offshore oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also southernmost in the state — Ehrenwerth calls it “the tip of the spear” – and, as such, has experienced significant damage from sea level rise, storm surge, and subsidence. A dredging project is underway that will remove between 20 million and 30 million cubic yards of sediment so that the port can service even larger vessels currently being serviced in other countries.
But what to do with tons of coastal sediment? This is where the Water Institute steps in.
This Institute is using an innovative planning process to examine the best places to use the dredge material to build new ridges, terraces and wetlands to protect the port’s infrastructure, helping to attenuate waves and prevent erosion. In the process, new habitat will be created, and community resiliency buffered. The final consideration is carbon sequestration in the form of black mangrove trees, which both hold sediment together and excel at capturing carbon. It’s a plan that transcends community, industry, and partisanship, according to Ehrenwerth, and leverages the organization’s expertise across disciplines.
Exporting the science
Ehrenwerth’s passion for innovation has served him well in tackling the institutional questions his organization faces. There are few others like it, and the best analogs come from the Netherlands, where water is a pressing concern.
“We’re a nonprofit,” Ehrenwerth explains. “We’re not a university, but we have a lot of people who come from the academic world. We’re not an engineering firm, but we do have engineers. We really operate in what the Dutch refer to as the golden triangle of government, academia and private sector engineering and consulting.”
Ehrenwerth sees positioning the Water Institute appropriately within those three sectors as his biggest challenge, and it’s an approach he’s eager to share. As well as problem-solving at home in Louisiana, today the Water Institute is pooling resources with partners in other cities, including one where flooding is fresh on everyone’s minds — the Rockefeller Foundation tapped the organization to help in developing the resiliency strategy for the city of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
What advice would Ehrenwerth give to leaders facing similar challenges?
“It can be very difficult to do day-to-day, but ensuring that there’s the time to really listen to your colleagues inside the organization as well as outside, and forge solutions that not only make sense from a substantive perspective, but really get at the human element of the work,” he says. “Collegiality, collaboration, and integrity are the key.”