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The Water Institute turns 10

By Gary Perilloux
At the riverfront headquarters of the Water Institute, Justin Ehrenwerth discusses the future of water. He’s surrounded by it. Behind him, a workboat struggles up the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, while thousands of cars travel over the Mississippi River Bridge.

The mission of The Institute, which Ehrenwerth leads, isn’t limited to rivers. It’s interested in humanity’s relationship with water worldwide, including seas that cover two-thirds of the earth’s surface and coastlines that are inhabited by more than 3 billion people.

Wherever water and people meet, the Water Institute of the Gulf is working to enhance that relationship. As the institute completed its 10th year in 2021, we asked Ehrenwerth where that critical relationship is headed.

At 10, the Water Institute of the Gulf has come of age and employs more than 70 people. What’s your most important accomplishment to date?

There are certainly lots of projects I could point to, but I will tell you that I think our No. 1 accomplishment is the team we have built and the ability to address not only existing problems, but to innovate and develop solutions and tools for the challenges of tomorrow.

The organization looks for challenges that exist in our communities and brings the best available science to address those challenges. There’s no one discipline that has the sole right to the answer. You’re going to have numerical modelers and coastal ecologists and geomorphologists and social scientists and planners and attorneys—all collaborating.

When someone says, here’s the problem that we have in our community, they’re not looking for a one-dimensional answer. They’re looking for an answer that helps the economy, the environment and the culture that we love so much in Louisiana and that is shared across the U.S. and the world. To really do this right requires not only brilliance but also a really collaborative mindset. And that is something I believe the institute has really grown into over the past 10 years, and I’m incredibly proud of it.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated Louisiana’s coast in 2005 and prompted state leaders to create the institute. On the Gulf Coast now, how are you applying science close to home?

In Louisiana, we’re doing some really important, innovative work. We are supporting the state in the development of the 2023 Coastal Master Plan (continuing a $50 billion, 50-year initiative), which is recognized around the country and across the world as one of the best science-based coastal master plans, if not the best.

We’re also assisting the state with the Louisiana Watershed Initiative, which is a $1.2 billion program funded from the disaster supplemental that came after the floods of 2016. That is a generational opportunity to think across parish lines about how we make our communities more resilient without regard to lines on a map, but really thinking about how water moves.

Also in Louisiana, we are assisting the governor with his ambitious Climate Initiatives Task Force. Governor Edwards has outlined an ambition to get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which is challenging for any state. It’s been a great opportunity for us to facilitate that comprehensive process, as well as doing some groundbreaking work here related to the quantification of carbon that can be captured in our wetlands.

Louisiana’s wetlands do a better job of capturing carbon than almost any other geography that you’ll find in the world, which creates a massive opportunity for us. It’s good for the economy. It protects our infrastructure. It supports fisheries and our tourism industry.

What innovative projects are you pursuing beyond the state?

We’ve been quite active in Texas. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the Rockefeller Foundation brought us in to do the resiliency strategy for the City of Houston. We’ve done a lot of work with the Texas General Land Office to make the Texas coastline more resilient in the future.

We’ve been very active in Charleston, South Carolina, and sponsored a Dutch Dialogues process that has led to some very innovative and forward-looking thinking from our friends in Charleston.

And more recently, we were engaged by the Commonwealth of Virginia to do Virginia’s very first coastal resilience master plan, which is an exciting opportunity for us.

And we’ve been engaged by the City of New York to help them update the flood maps and analytics they use to do everything from supporting building code regulations to zoning.

What’s exciting about all of this is that our mission as a nonprofit is to help our community here in Louisiana, and then to take that knowledge and export it to other coastal communities that face similar challenges. We can help those communities but also learn from them and bring that knowledge back to Louisiana.

Which comes first: Do you recognize a problem and go raise research funds? Or do parties recognize a problem, bring it to you, and help fund a solution?

It’s a mix. We will write proposals for the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, various federal agencies that do a request for proposals in our area of interest. We also will engage with public-sector and private-sector partners who come to us and say, “We have a challenge; can you help us?” A great example of that is what we call our Partnership for Our Working Coast. This is a public-private partnership that the Water Institute has built and coordinates. The partners include Port Fourchon, Shell, Chevron, Danos and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. That is a really great example of where collaboration can help address the tragedy of the commons.

In the case of Fourchon, the port is planning to dredge to 30 feet and ultimately 50 feet. That’s going to create some 20 million cubic yards of material. In a sediment-starved system like ours, that’s a gold mine. So we created this partnership looking at where we should put that material to get the biggest bang for the buck.

And we’re using our numerical modeling capabilities and other analytic capabilities to look at four areas. One is protecting the infrastructure in and around the port. Where do you build marshes and terraces and ridges so that you get wave-attenuation benefits and erosion-prevention benefits? The second is ecosystem service benefits. We’re going to create new habitat and environment. The third is community resiliency. We actually measure resiliency to get very specific around alternatives that will be more beneficial for the community. The fourth is the opportunity of the material and the habitat that’s created to capture carbon.

And what is so exciting about that method of working is you have parties that sometimes find themselves in opposition to one another. The oil and gas industry, environmentalists and community leaders aren’t always agreeing. In this case, we’re all standing on the side of the angels. We’re all trying to figure out how to maximize this opportunity to restore and protect our environment, our economy and our way of life.

Louisiana is a unique place to capture and sequester carbon. Are you digging into underground geology to accomplish that?

We are interested in all areas of using our coastal assets to capture carbon. They tend to fall into two categories. There’s the industrial carbon-capture and sequestration and then the nature-based work. Our area of expertise is much more on the nature-based side. However, we’re certainly interested in many aspects of the CCUS (carbon capture, utilization and storage) conversation. Ultimately, we hope that we can help facilitate policies that incentivize the creation of new marsh, because of the properties that our marsh has, in terms of the ability to capture and sequester carbon. And right now, the marketplace for coastal carbon has many challenges. And those are challenges that we believe can be addressed. Some of them with existing tools and others that will require additional research.

You mentioned establishing policies to incentivize carbon-capture. Is it comparable to wetlands mitigation, where companies offset their environmental impact?

I think the concept is that investments in building marsh in Louisiana are not only going to be beneficial because we’ll have new habitat and we’ll have infrastructure protection, but also because of the opportunity to capture carbon. Right now, the carbon market in this country is like the Wild West. There is a method in California around cap-and-trade. There is a constellation of states in New England that are working together. Washington and Oregon have initiatives underway. Coastal carbon, which is what we see in our Louisiana wetlands—there are incredible opportunities there.

The existing carbon marketplace, on the natural side, was really built with standards to look at terrestrial forests. So up in Iowa you have an undisturbed forest area where a commitment is made not to log. That is a much more straightforward proposition than coastal marsh. However, there is a strong body of existing science and much more that we can do to answer some of the questions that have stopped us to-date from really unlocking the carbon marketplace for coastal Louisiana. The way these markets have worked in other parts of the world, that has been quite successful, is an entity that either wants to trade in carbon credits for its own sake, or is looking to meet an offset requirement, would have the opportunity to make an investment and then benefit from those credits. It’s not something that exists in a functional way in Louisiana today, but something that we really think can be created for a very exciting future.

A final footnote on carbon: Is the opportunity with marshes at the surface level about creating more habitat to reverse the carbon impact?

I tend to think of them in two different buckets. The industrial carbon-capture work is very interested in the salt domes and other subsurface structures in Louisiana. Certainly, we’ve found the interest in that area among partners has grown significantly. That is not an area of expertise of the Water Institute, but it’s an area we’re quite interested by. We certainly want to support our collaborators in that. Our work has focused on the surface. On how those marshes can best capture and sequester carbon. The governor’s climate task force has been discussing and debating the merits of these different types of solutions, and a report is anticipated this year.

Is innovation a requirement for you to take on a project? How important is it to use science in a new way?

The way we think about this is our job is to translate and apply the best science to current challenges. And science is constantly evolving in every facet. For us, the opportunities to apply science are relevant even to old problems. There are often going to be new ways to tackle old problems. And there are times when there are established, well-documented ways to solve a particular challenge. We are not disincentivized to apply existing ideas to current problems, but we’re always looking for opportunities to innovate. Some could argue that the work of an applied research group like ours is constant innovation, because we are taking the most impactful and fresh research from our colleagues in the universities and nongovernmental groups and others and looking for ways to apply that fundamental research to real-life problems.

Looking at the supply-demand equation, is there enough money to tackle the challenges that come your way? Is there a big backlog?

The demand dramatically exceeds the supply of time and current personnel. One of the reasons the Water Institute has grown so dramatically over the last couple of years is that, unfortunately, the challenges that our communities face are only growing. And so that is what drives the demand in one respect — the negative side of the demand. The positive side of the demand is we are getting much more focused on the fact that making resilience investments before a disaster is much smarter and economical than waiting for a disaster and using funds that are appropriated to address that disaster in trying to build back. So the idea is investing in making communities more resilient on the front end is going to mitigate the loss, but also it’s going to pay off. Because it’s much more expensive to come in after the fact.

Were you hired by New York to do flood prevention and storm planning work prior to Ida?

That work was underway before Ida, but I think it is really getting at the larger set of challenges. How do we build in the future? How is our built environment constructed to withstand not just the challenges of today but of the next 50 to 100 years. The further you go out into the future, the more uncertainty we encounter. So the Water Institute is doing a lot more work in the area of decision-making under deep uncertainty. That’s the kind of science that’s needed to prioritize future investments to try to get ahead of the next disaster.

For the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill recently signed by President Biden, will the Water Institute be able to leverage funds there that could lead to significant work?

Yes, the bipartisan infrastructure bill has $47 billion in it for climate resilience. We have never seen a billion in the world of climate resilience, specifically in this way. So to see this amount of attention and funding is remarkable. It also, I think, highlights the fact that climate resilience is bipartisan. It was the one aspect of the larger climate agenda that was contained in the bipartisan bill, and there are many other aspects of the climate agenda in the bill that’s currently being debated. What appeals to us so much about this massive amount of climate resilience investment is that we’re happy to see that it is bipartisan, because we are a nonpolitical organization. Our work is apolitical, and it’s nice when the funding reflects that. So we are definitely following the developments post-enactment of that legislation, and a lot of our federal partners—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, EPA, Interior, so many others—are receiving historic levels of funding as a result. And we do hope we will be able to use our resources and tools on various projects that will be funded by that massive investment.

There’s no special funding that names the Water Institute per se in the appropriations, but you hope to get work through those agencies?

That’s right. I imagine many of the federal agencies will have competitive processes to procure not only projects but also the kind of work that we do. And, of course, we’ll look at those carefully and figure out how we can best bring our partners together and do collaborative science that supports those objectives.

In 2020, Gov. Edwards designated the Water Institute as the Coastal Innovation and Collaboration Hub for Louisiana. How is that changing the way you work?

We were honored to be designated the Coastal Innovation and Collaboration Hub by Gov. Edwards, and I think what it did more than change the way we work is that it highlighted the way we have always aspired to work. Our mission is not to do all the applied research ourselves but rather to build collaboration and partnerships with our colleagues in what the Dutch refer to as the “golden triangle” in government, academia and the private sector. We see ourselves as the innovation hub as living in the middle of that triangle, and our job is to understand the challenges that are being experienced by members of that constellation, and to create the right partnerships to address those challenges. I think what that designation really reflects is what we were created to do and certainly what we have been quite focused on for the last few years.

Looking at what Lake Charles has endured as a hot spot for storm impact, there are many agencies involved in crisis response, but is there a role for you to play as storms get worse?

Yes. The area that we’re focused on that will be the greatest help to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, DOTD, CPRA, the Office of Community Development is what we call real-time forecasting. We are currently underway with the state to provide a comprehensive, interactive suite of tools that can assist not any one state agency, but all of them in preparing for the storms that we know are coming. But also in assisting with the actions that need to be taken. We will never know what to tell the Louisiana National Guard to do, but what we can do is advise the National Guard on where we expect to see impacts for a particular storm event, whether it’s surge impacts, whether it’s rainfall, whether it’s riverine flooding or a combination. Those are all areas where we are actively engaged and where we believe we can make some very important contributions to the state overall.

You marked the 10th anniversary of the Water Institute of the Gulf with an institute retreat and ceremonies. What were your key takeaways?

The most meaningful part was to be with the 70-plus people who work at the Water Institute. It is just the honor of my life to be able to work with these remarkable colleagues who are so brilliant and so committed to their work. They have the highest level of scientific integrity and none of them are looking for the limelight. They want to be able to make meaningful contributions. And to be surrounded by my colleagues was so rewarding.

The other thing that was particularly meaningful to me was to stand with the people who had the founding vision for the Water Institute. Sen. Mary Landrieu was with us. Congressman Garret Graves, who was one of the founders, was meant to be with us but was taken away with Washington business, but we did have his wife Carissa Graves here with us. And we also had the opportunity to honor John Davies. That was a particular joy, because John is retiring after 33 years leading the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. And there would not be a Water Institute but for John Davies and BRAF, so it was fitting I thought that we got to celebrate both our 10th anniversary as well as the many contributions that John and the BRAF team have made.

Ultimately, I believe the greatest pleasure was the degree to which those who had the initial ideas and have worked so hard to create the Water Institute could hear that we have built an organization and a culture that matches their hopes and aspirations. And that they continue to support the mission, the methodology, and are rooting us all along for the next 10 years. We’re very privileged to have such great partners, collaborators and supporters.