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

Jul 30, 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.”

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.” Read the full story here.