Andrew Niemcyzk worked for years as a coal miner in his native Poland, during which time he would examine the mine's earthen walls and think about the way water was moving from the surface deep into the ground. He didn’t know it then, but that curiosity would lead to the establishment of Parjana, a Detroit company that is poised to change the way the whole world manages water.
Parjana's true origins, however, are in a wet Hamtramck basement.
After immigrating to the U.S., Niemcyzk and his family settled in Hamtramck, and his basement was like many of those found in that city: excessively moist. Worried that their children would develop asthma, Niemcyzk’s wife implored him to fix the problem.
“I started all over trade shows looking for something to fix the basement, and I couldn’t find nothing," says Niemcyzk. "The problem was the hydrostatic pressure. And how do you deal with the hydrostatic pressure? Nobody had a product for this. Eventually I decided I would have to do it myself.”
Building a blue economy business
A small pipe the width of a thumb, Niemcyzk's invention, the Energy Passive Groundwater Recharge Product (EGRP), uses the gravitational force of the earth and the natural movements of sediment to promote surface infiltration and distribute the water throughout the soil. Or as Parjana president Roy Cole puts it, “This is a tree root system on steroids.”
Parjana is betting that the projected increase in extreme weather
will increase demand for its product and widen profit margins. While the company is quickly becoming a the leader of a blue economic sector that will harness Michigan’s water resources to create jobs, save money for cities, and protect the Great Lakes, it isn't relying solely on Niemcyzk's genius to make money.
Gruff at times, Niemcyzk carries his cigarettes in his front shirt pocket, the way men used to. He is not fond of explaining his system or the benefits it delivers in anything other than the gritty details. Bringing Parjana's product to the global market is the job of Gregory McParlin, who met Niemcyzk for the first time in 2011 in the booth of a coney island restaurant.
Wearing a pinstriped suit, McPartlin uses decorations on the walls of Parjana’s office on Library Street in downtown Detroit to explain the EGRP system.
“Parjana’s objective is to be at the forefront of green tech," he says. "Detroit can be an epicenter for technologies that resolve water issues. We want to be a part of the rebirth of Detroit. The past 100 years were based on manufacturing. The next 100 years of Michigan can be based on water. Water is the number one issue facing the globe right now. And Detroit? Our greatest asset is water.”
Niemcyzk, on the other hand, sees Parjana as a perfect collision of fate and deliberate action. Explaining how the name of his company came about he says, “I named the company after my kids' initials, who were born in Poland. After we did this name, I googled Parjana and we found out he is the Hindu god of water. It was just happenstance. Ninety-nine percent of inventions are accidents, but this is no accident.”
A compliment to green infrastructure
The perspective on stormwater in the 21st century has been flipped on its head. In the old days, the goal was to get water into the sewers and out to the lakes as soon as possible. Now, with aging sewers and drains overwhelmed, Detroit and other older cities are working to keep stormwater in safe places above ground, where it then can flow naturally into the earth, avoiding the sewer system completely. This is the essence of a green infrastructure strategy.
Detroit's sewer system is aging and over-burdened by stormwater
Victoria Kovari, general manager of the Department of Neighborhoods, says the department gets calls from all across the city immediately after a heavy rainstorm. "Basements are backing up, and streets are so flooded they are virtually impassable," she says. "The stormwater drain is clogged because the city can’t afford to clean streets like it used to, and getting the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to come and unclog and vacuum these things is very difficult.”
Green infrastructure elements like bioswales and retention ponds have been identified as ways to help alleviate this burden on Detroit's sewer system. They've also been welcomed by many neighborhoods as ways of putting vacant land back into productive use.
“We certainly have a huge amount of vacant land and green infrastructure is a perfect tool where we can match the stormwater problem we have with all the vacant land,” says Kovari.
But the major limitation to implementing green infrastructure is financing. “We are in year one of a 10-year plan of adjustment, which limits our ability to invest in this kind of infrastructure," says Kovani. "There is some money related to blight removal, but not much beyond that.”
Utilizing some of the $52 million awarded to Detroit from the Hardest Hit Fund
, the Detroit Land Bank Authority has worked with DWSD and the University of Michigan to experiment with demolishing homes and filling their basement cavities with soil that allows water to collect and permeate into the earth, avoiding the sewer systems altogether. A special garden is planted on top of this soil.
“Green infrastructure is a way to use the land in a productive manner," explains Gregory Holman, senior data manager for the Detroit Land Bank Authority. "And it reduces our strain in terms of having to maintain and mow the parcels we own. We can take the challenges we have in terms of infrastructure scale and vacancy and turn them into opportunities to remediate water and reduce pollution into the Rogue River and other tributaries.”
But green infrastructure elements can only do so much by themselves, and that’s where Parjana comes in.
“The problem with rain gardens or bioswales is they only can handle so much water," says McPartlin. "We increase the infiltration capacity so you can capture more volume on less of a footprint.”
Parjana's EGRP is a designed to complement existing green infrastructure to reduce stormwater impacts, creating a matrix of water management that is perhaps more than the sum of its parts.
As green infrastructure arrangements become more common across the nation’s urban landscapes, Parjana is awaiting final approval of the EGRP system from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. This will allow the EGRP to be a certified best management practice for stormwater, which Parjana hopes will be the tipping point it needs to become financially sustainable.
Until then, it's nose to the grindstone.
“I just can’t quit the things I start," says Niemcyzk. "I could be living in Bloomfield Hills, but I’m in Hamtramck so we can see this business through. At the end of the day, it is not about the money, it is about building a better future for my children and having a world that can support another generation.”
Samuel Molnar is a 2015-2016 Sea Grant Fellow at the Great Lakes Commission. He writes for Model D about the intersection of urbanism and the environment. He can be reached at SamAlbin@umich.edu
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.