BSE ChE '01
Deputy Director and Chief Engineer
Detroit Water and Sewerage Department
Who knew that the final design project for ChE 487 would chart the trajectory for what has been an amazing career for Palencia Mobley? The year she graduated, the design course studied the treatment process for pulp and papermill effluent for discharge to the public sewer system. At the time, Palencia had not decided exactly what she wanted to do, but consulting sounded like a good option.
In 2001, after interviewing with a variety of companies, she landed at Malcolm Pirnie (now Arcadis), a privately held environmental consulting firm ranked in the Top 25 firms by Engineering News Record. About a month into the job, she realized she would have to get her professional engineering license to succeed. Nervous about taking the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, she called Dr. Montgomery, who gave her a study guide and encouraged her to take it. “ ‘You have nothing to worry about,’ she assured me.” She was right, in the fall of 2001, Palencia completed the first step to becoming a licensed professional engineer.
Her first assignment was at the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant. She spent several years there managing design and construction projects, and developing training as part of a $550 million-dollar program to upgrade and rehabilitate the plant. About six months into the job, like any xennial, she thought she should run the place and asked her manager to support her returning to school part time to get an MBA. But he told her she didn’t need an MBA to do the work she was doing, a master’s degree in engineering would take her much further in the business. She took on the challenge and began a master’s program at Wayne State University, graduating in 2004 with a degree in civil and environmental engineering. Thanks to the wise advice she received from her boss, her new degree opened every single door to get her where she is today in her career.
“Growing up in Detroit, there’s just something about this place that imbues you with hustle, determination, and the sheer will to just make it happen,” Palencia says. “In 2006, I became one of the youngest minority women to ever obtain a professional engineering license in Michigan.” For more than a decade, she continued to serve the public as a consultant, but in 2014, she had the opportunity to work for the city she so dearly loves. At the time, the city was at the beginning of the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States.
In September of 2014, under the guidance of the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, most of the city’s creditors had agreed to the terms of the bankruptcy, but there was still one major enterprise of the city for which a resolution had yet to be reached. The fate of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), which serves more than a third of Michigan’s population, was still unknown. In the spirit of regional collaboration, an agreement was reached to create a new regional public authority, the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), to lease the regional DWSD facilities from the City of Detroit for $50 million per year for 40 years. So, Palencia spent the next year breaking up a billion-dollar public enterprise agency.
Appointed by Mayor Mike Duggan in fall of 2015, she serves as the deputy director and chief engineer for DWSD. The new DWSD is responsible for distributing treated water and collecting sewage and stormwater but no longer operates any treatment facilities. With the lease payment provided by GLWA, DWSD is rebuilding the city’s water and sewer infrastructure for current residents and future generations. “We’re engineering systems that are sustainable, resilient, and transform communities,” Palencia says. “We’re providing opportunities for Detroiters to be a part of the rebuilding of their hometown.” Everyday, She has the opportunity to be of service to people that live, work, and play in the 139 square miles she calls home. This is mission- and purpose-driven work and she loves every minute of it.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve realized the importance of mirrors and the concept of reflections. I did not know what a chemical engineer was or what they did but I decided that I was going to be one. Now that I am, another little girl does not have to wonder, but she can see her reflection in me.”
Though work keeps her busy, Palencia stays committed to helping the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP) whenever they call on her. She also co-leads the STEM activities for the ASCEND (Achievement, Self-Awareness, Communication, Engagement, Networking and Developmental Skills) Program with her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., Alpha Rho Omega Chapter. In addition, she also participates in numerous career exploration panels at local schools and gave her first high school commencement address this past June!