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Meet Justin Ehrenwerth

A conversation with the new CEO of The Water Institute
By David Jacobs

Justin Ehrenwerth was named president and CEO of The Water Institute of the Gulf early this year. Founded in 2011, the nonprofit Institute researches coastal, deltaic, river and water resource systems to help governments, businesses and residents prepare for an uncertain future. It also serves as the RESTORE Act Center of Excellence for Louisiana, awarding grants to promote implementation of the state’s Coastal Master Plan.

This summer, the Institute announced a partnership with Deltares, based in the Netherlands and perhaps the world’s leading authority on how to live with water. That relationship may evolve into a merger of TWIG and Deltares’ American division.

Ehrenwerth is the former executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, created after the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill to benefit states affected by the 2010 disaster. Before that, he was chief of staff to the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce and assistant counsel to the President overseeing Deepwater Horizon litigation.

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He met his future wife Dana Dupré, an Opelousas native, while both were attending college in Maine more than a decade ago. They became reacquainted while he was working in New Orleans after the BP spill. “The professional and personal came together, and in 2013 I moved to Louisiana,” he says. In September, the couple celebrated the birth of Charles Percy, their first child.

The Institute was started after Katrina, when the Baton Rouge Area Foundation collaborated with state and local elected officials and scientists to make it happen. What’s the history of the first few years?

For the first four or five years of our existence, our main mission was to support the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s development of the 50-year, $50 billion master plan. We’re very well known for the modeling that has gone into the master plan, including the diversion program. So, for the first five years, our main funding source has been the state of Louisiana.

The Institute is a Center for Excellence. Would you share what that means?

It gives us the opportunity to help our colleagues at universities all over the state fund research that will further the master plan. Our overarching theory is that it’s not The Water Institute, it’s not one university, it’s not one engineering firm that will be able to develop and implement all the solutions to save our coast and restore our ecosystem. It takes all of us working together.

What’s the share of the BP Restore fund and how Do you make grants from it?

It’s 2.5% of the overall amount that’s gone into the Restore Fund. That money is only available through the Centers of Excellence of the five Gulf Coast states. We don’t take that money and do research ourselves. We issue an RFP and invite collaborators from throughout the state to bring their best ideas forward. There’s never enough money to fund all the good ideas.

How far along are you?

We just finished our first round, and there were many more excellent ideas than we had funding available, which is really encouraging. We received 61 proposals requesting a total of about $20 million; 13 projects will share $3 million in the first round. The settlement agreement calls for $27 million in payments for Louisiana over 15 years, so if you wanted to do something really big in year two, you have to wait for the dollars to accrue in the trust fund. We’re strategizing around this question: How do you balance a sense of urgency to get dollars out with the notion that the money’s going to come in over a 15-year period?

Why have an independent Water Institute instead of, say, a research center at one of the state’s universities?

To develop integrated solutions to the most complicated challenges, you have to have a real cohesion across disciplines. That’s not to say you don’t find that at a university. But if you look at The Water Institute, among our 35 employees, we’ve got ecologists working with social scientists working with modelers working with folks collecting sediment samples. In some larger organizations, sometimes scientists get stuck in silos.

We also have the ability to develop very tailored and specific scientific analysis and modeling for a particular client, such as Louisiana’s CPRA. And having the credibility of an independent applied research organization has enabled us to take the best from every university across the state—this knowledge base that we’ve developed in Louisiana dealing with sea level rise, subsidence, and getting ready for the next storm—and export that knowledge to other states and around the world.

The Netherlands has been adapting to water for generations based on water science by their Deltares. The Water Institute has worked informally with Deltares USA for five years, but you signed a formal agreement this summer with that organization which could lead to a merger. What benefits would a merger bring?

A merger would make it that much easier to collaborate and bring the best of both organizations to any particular challenge, and not just in Louisiana. There are challenges in Florida, California, Virginia, the Mekong River Delta, the South Pacific and in coastal Chile.

What are some of your new collaborative projects?

One of the best examples is in New Orleans with the Sewerage and Water Board. The Water Institute has been named to the emergency management team, charged with helping the mayor get his arms around the challenges. With Deltares, we are looking at the best practices for living with water. The city of New Orleans cannot simply rely on its pumping capabilities. There must be additional urban water practices put in place.

Later this year, Louisiana is going to host the American Geophysical Union conference. The Water Institute and Deltares are doing a joint modeling training course.

We’re also partnering with Port Fourchon, Shell, Chevron and Danos to study how to best use about 34 million cubic yards of material that will result from the port dredging 50 feet. Where are the best places to put that material to create new wetlands, ridges and terraces that would protect port infrastructure, benefit the ecosystem, make communities more resilient, and provide carbon capture benefits?

What projects outside of Louisiana is the institute working on?

Our researchers have worked all over the world. For example, we’ve been engaged by the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research in the Mekong Delta. In that complicated deltaic system, our team worked on field measurements and modeling to further the understanding of how water and sediment moved through the system.

Right now, members of our team are in Fiji working with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme. Over the summer, Institute researchers worked on taking field measurements of land elevation, vegetation types and water depth while placing wave monitoring instruments to gather longer-term information. This data will be fed into models that will ultimately be given back to the communities as they work through their process of prioritizing climate change adaptation strategies.

What can we learn from last summer’s flooding in the Capital Region?

The flooding last year highlights the importance of being better prepared next time. Throughout the state, we need to ensure that we’ve got the most up-to-date flood models. There are parts of East Baton Rouge Parish for which the models go back to the 1970s and 1980s.

The Water Institute and Deltares have an opportunity to partner on real-time forecasting, so you can have a sense of the flood implications of a particular storm event one, three, five or seven days out. Last year we lacked the type of information that we need to deploy assets and best manage our emergency response activities. We can do a much better job with that.

How would a forecasting system be used?

We would make the information available to parish and local officials and to first responders.

One could imagine officials having access to that real-time forecasting information, then making decisions about what information should be made available to the public. It really lets you go to the street level, to see whether the model is predicting flooding in a particular neighborhood. No model is perfect, but it allows you to get a sense of what areas are likely to flood. There could be animations that could be put on the local news. With better information, we can allow first responders and citizens to make better decisions.

Do you expect the institute to work more with the private sector?

Over the first five years of our life, The Water Institute has developed a remarkable toolbox of world-class science and modeling that we have applied to the state’s master plan. Our next chapter is looking for ways to take that tool box and help private sector entities.

There are very important economic opportunities in dealing with and addressing coastal change. That could include supporting the working coast, working with oil and gas companies to figure out how we can protect critical infrastructure. These things that we’ve become the best in the world at are not unique to our geography, and are impacting companies and entities all over the world.

Will many residents of coastal parishes have to move inland?

Adapting to change will require both natural systems and people adapting. Some areas are far less sustainable than others.

Is south Louisiana due for a wake-up call? Are we going to have to change our development patterns?

Yes. You can’t do it just with traditional infrastructure. We can’t build sea walls high enough. Unless we implement the best practices of living with water, we will have very serious challenges. New Orleans is experiencing those challenges now, as are cities around the country.

What is realistically possible?

We cannot go back to the way it was 100 years ago. We live in a delta. Deltas are constantly evolving. How can you best protect and restore wetlands and natural systems, in a way that preserves our culture and our way of life, while at the same time ensuring that enough attention goes to adaptation?

The governor earlier this year announced the LA SAFE program, where he talked about how some folks are going to need to consider resettlement. It’s not really a question of, do we need to do this? It’s a question of, how can we do this best? How can we do this with the best natural science, while recognizing the humanity and the culture that is involved? And to the extent that people do need to relocate, how do we do that in a thoughtful fashion? Those are the questions that we are grappling with now, for Louisiana and for coastal populations throughout the world.

When is the Water Institute moving into The Water Campus building?

We’re scheduled to move in by the end of the year and are very excited to be based in such an iconic building jutting out over the river. To be in that building, at the center of the Water Campus and so close to the Mississippi River—which we study for restoration purposes every day—is very exciting.

Why a Water Campus?

The Water Campus shows just how forward-thinking Louisiana has become when dealing with water, coastal and deltaic challenges. The campus envisioned and being implemented through the Baton Rouge Area Foundation provides a focal point in bringing together leading researchers, contractors, engineers and planners from around the world to one location.

Even in the internet age, the ability to co-locate these groups, all working toward shared goals but bringing different strengths to the table, will foster incredible collaborations. In short order, the campus will become an incubator for new ideas, new partnerships, and continue to enhance Louisiana’s well-earned reputation as a leader in water management and coastal sustainability innovation.

Interview edited for length and clarity.