Water Works

A jaunt to Jazz Fest leads to a mission for Louisiana’s wetlands

By Christina NunezPhotography by Edmund Fountain and Benjamin Lowy
July 29, 2021

The weekend after April 20, 2010, was a fateful one for Justin Ehrenwerth ’01. He took a trip with friends to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, where he met up with a fellow Colby alum—a woman from Louisiana who had lived in the same dorm.

A lunch invitation stretched into hours together. By the end of the weekend, he was in love and already thinking about how to get back to Louisiana from Washington, where he was a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Commerce. Waiting at the airport for his plane back to D.C., Ehrenwerth remembers looking up at the TV screens and seeing coverage of an oil rig on fire in the Gulf of Mexico.

The oil rig was the Deepwater Horizon, the source of a massive oil spill that became the focus of Ehrenwerth’s work for the next decade. The alum he fell for was Dana Dupre ’01, who married Ehrenwerth a few years later. Today, he and Dupre live with their two children in New Orleans, where he is president and CEO of the Water Institute of the Gulf. The independent nonprofit does research to boost resilience for Gulf Coast communities and ecosystems.

“My career has taken a few turns that I hadn’t imagined,” he said. “Coming to New Orleans was the coming together of professional and personal in a really good way.”

Justin Ehrenwerth standing in marsh water
Thigh-deep in the waters of the Bayou Bienvenue in New Orleans, Justin Ehrenwerth ’01, president and CEO of the Water Institute of the Gulf, says Louisiana is experiencing an “existential land-loss crisis.”

A pivotal disaster

The explosion on Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers and caused the largest marine oil spill—four million barrels—in history. It also precipitated years of legal wrangling over responsibility for the accident on the rig, which oil company BP leased from owner and operator Transocean, an offshore drilling contractor.

Back in Washington, Ehrenwerth went to work on the U.S. government’s case against the responsible parties for the incident, first at the Department of Commerce and later as assistant counsel to President Obama. His relationship with Dupre was progressing, though, and the commute between D.C. and New Orleans couldn’t last. Meanwhile, Congress had created a new federal agency to administer funds for the Gulf recovery effort. Ehrenwerth went to his friends in the White House and volunteered to lead it from Louisiana.

“They said, ‘You’re out of your mind. Why do you want to leave Washington and go work for a council of five Southern governors and six federal agency heads?’” he recalled. As his friends soon learned, there was more than enough reason.

So, in 2013, he became executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council. Two years later, the U.S. government and the five Gulf states reached a settlement with BP worth more than $20 billion. Ehrenwerth’s job was to get consensus on what would be done with approximately $3.2 billion of the settlement that followed through his council.

“Finding yourself as a Yankee Democrat in the Gulf of Mexico working on these issues was originally surreal,” Ehrenwerth said. “Then it became what I would have always wanted to spend my time doing.”

Tugboat with men standing on deck.
Justin Ehrenwerth, center, on the tugboat Mardi Gras, the first tug in the Water Institute’s “Waze for the Mississippi River” project, a service that will allow for safer navigation on the river.

Roots in advocacy

As a first-year in college, Ehrenwerth had three main interests: philosophy, civil rights, and being outdoors. He found outlets for all of those interests at Colby. Professor of Philosophy Dan Cohen was a major influence, from Introduction to Logic to later courses on analytic philosophy. Cohen shaped Ehrenwerth’s interest in argumentation and what it could mean to argue (or not) with God.

Ehrenwerth also got involved in a college task force on institutional racism and found a mentor in another professor, Professor of Philosophy Jill Gordon, as he served in student government and on the task force. She “provided advice and mentorship that was really forward leaning, but also very practical,” he said. “That really shaped how I thought of advocacy.”

What he took away from Gordon was the idea that change tends to be more incremental than you might want it to be. “The hard work of community organizing and advocating for change is oftentimes more of a relay race where you carry the baton as far and as fast as you can,” Ehrenwerth said. “Recognizing that it’s going to take the running of many others to ultimately get where you want to go.”

Justin Ehrenwerth in kayak
Justin Ehrenwerth’s motivation to help underserved communities, a desire that began at Colby, has come full circle in his work to restore Gulf ecosystems.

Ehrenwerth’s interest in civil rights comes from a deeply personal place. Growing up in Pittsburgh, he lost his mother to a car accident when he was 13. A labor lawyer with a strong moral compass, she taught him about the injustice his Jewish ancestors endured simply because of their faith. Several years later, he spent a summer working for the National Conference on Community and Justice in Pittsburgh and became fascinated by the role that Jews played in the civil rights movement. Mentors like Gordon helped him to channel this passion into action. During his senior year, along with Sounun Tek ’04 and Lee Rankin ’03, Ehrenwerth organized the first Colby-Bates-Bowdoin Diversity Conference.

Return to New Orleans

After graduation, Ehrenwerth imagined he would become either an academic philosopher or a civil rights lawyer. He spent a year after Colby in a community-organizing fellowship, then earned a master’s in philosophy at the University of Oxford.

“I loved the world of ideas, but I really wanted to roll up my sleeves and get involved in the world of action,” Ehrenwerth said. Politics was a persistent draw. After leaving Oxford, he worked on the John Kerry campaign and later on the Barack Obama campaign as he finished his law degree at the University of Pennsylvania.

The campaign work ultimately led to his government positions, including leading the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, where he managed to get an initial $200 million in projects approved—no small feat, given the council’s complex oversight.

Ehrenwerth served all eight years of President Obama’s term. During this time, he came to appreciate the need for actionable, applied science to inform political decisions. He saw how, without that science, politics could perpetuate environmental injustice. Investments would be made in wealthier communities with political power, while poorer populations who needed the help most were left out.

Following the 2016 presidential election, Ehrenwerth was appointed the second president and CEO of the Water Institute, where [CN9] he’s working on solutions for what he calls an “existential land-loss crisis” in Louisiana. The state loses a football-field-size chunk of wetlands every 100 minutes. That trend is driven by a few factors, including a levee system that cuts off critical sediment flows and oil and gas canals that allow in damaging saltwater.

His group researches various aspects of the ecosystem, including sediment flows, water quality, and ecological impacts of land creation. The Water Institute also conducts studies within communities to determine the social impact of changes happening in the Mississippi Delta. The institute’s research helps inform projects such as sediment diversion to replenish wetlands, and it helps quantify the benefits of intact wetlands, which store carbon, filter water, and provide a buffer against coastal erosion.

“We never advocate at the Water Institute,” he said. “We simply try to lay out for decision-makers what the options are—and the pros and cons of each.”

Ehrenwerth’s decision to leave Washington for New Orleans carried him closer to his early-career ambitions than he might have imagined at the time. After all, restoring Gulf ecosystems isn’t just about the wildlife. It touches those who are hardest hit by the sea-level rise, storms, and flooding coastal Louisiana is seeing as climate change intensifies.

“The communities that need the most help are, not surprisingly, those who have been most forgotten,” he said. “The opportunity to really get at what moved me as a college student, in many ways, has come full circle.”