In a way, everything came full circle for Justin Ehrenwerth when he landed at The Water Institute of the Gulf nearly five years ago. For a while, though, it was hard to predict the direction his life might take.
It seemed the Pittsburgh native was destined for a career in civic engagement or politics in his younger years. He first earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Colby College in Maine, and then a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University in England. He even found time to complete a fellowship in civic engagement in Pittsburgh.
“I thought I was going to become an academic philosopher or work in some civil rights capacity,” Ehrenwerth says. Instead, he chose to pursue a juris doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School and then landed a gig after graduation as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C.
That’s when the currents of life began to steer him south. Much of the department’s funding goes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, so he soon began working on issues impacting NOAA and the National Weather Service. Then, following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, he became the point person for litigation pertaining to the spill.
His professional and personal lives started to overlap. He began dating his future wife, a native of Opelousas, and found himself going back and forth to Louisiana for two reasons. “I have since discovered that when you marry a girl from south Louisiana, you will live here forever,” he says. “And that’s a good thing.”
In 2013, he volunteered to help establish a new federal agency in New Orleans: the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, funded by the RESTORE Act following Deepwater Horizon.
“As it turns out, there’s no manual for doing that,” he says. “I’m proud of what we accomplished there. We built a team and were able to find consensus on a variety of issues among five states and six federal agencies.”
While there, he also learned to appreciate programs that encourage “actionable” science in a politically charged environment. The Water Institute in Baton Rouge, he found, was a prime example of such a program. When his predecessor at the institute, Chip Groat, announced his retirement, Ehrenwerth was tapped as president and CEO in 2017.
He has since overseen a period of rapid expansion in scope and geography at The Water Institute. In 2020, the institute completed a large-scale resiliency study and plan for the city of Houston. It also worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston and was recently asked by the state of Virginia to assist with the state’s first coastal master plan and resiliency strategy.
Ehrenwerth has come to recognize a common thread in his academic and professional journey of the last two decades. “We at the institute spend a lot of time helping the most vulnerable communities and historically under supported deal with flooding and various other challenges,” he says. “I do appreciate that I have the opportunity to work on some of these issues that motivated me some 20 years ago.”
Read the full Q&A with Ehrenwerth, which includes his future plans for the Water Institute, from 10/12 Industry Report.