Patrick Painter oversees nearly half the area of the city of West Palm Beach. But those 24 square miles don’t have a single home, or fire hydrant, or traffic light. Painter is the city’s environmental resource manager. His primary job is to oversee the Grassy Waters Preserve, a protected area of the original Everglades that provides water for more than 100,000 city and suburban households who are customers of West Palm Beach’s utility system.
In August, the city began a push to make Grassy Waters South Florida’s first “eco-tourism destination.” As with other parts of the Everglades, which once covered most of the southern peninsula of Florida, Grassy Waters hosts a myriad of birds, land mammals and reptiles, including alligators. But the city also has to be careful that it not become too popular, lest Grassy Waters be overrun.
The city’s about to spend $100,000 to renovate its nature center. It also has petitioned for the preserve to go onto the National Register of Historic Places.
Painter, 65, a West Palm Beach native, attended Forest Hill High School and the Florida Institute of Technology. He ran an environmental consulting firm for 38 years. For 12 of them, his clientele included the city. In 2007, he suggested the city bring him on full time, which it did. He lives in Loxahatchee Groves with his wife, an artist. He has two grown children and two grandchildren.
Q: What would people be surprised to learn about the Grassy Waters watershed? There’s a disconnect. Every time we get into a drought regime, you realize how large that disconnect is. People think they get their water from the tap. We’re always trying to bring them back to a large perspective. It is something that could either be viewed as a gift, or providence, or outright luck: we bought out a system that (Henry) Flagler had bought in 1904. It was basically a marsh. A marsh we rely on today.
Q: What percentage of visitors to the preserve are first-timers? You’d be surprised. I’d say it’s in the 60 percent that are not regulars. They could be living here and happen to stumble on the place. We try to make it a point to have somebody always on the boardwalk to interact with people. We get about 30,000 students a year.
Q: What about your eco-tourism push? This eco-tourism is going to be a pivotal moment in our history. We are part of the Everglades, even though we’ve been severed by roads and rails and canals and municipalities. We can use that as a teaching platform to really start educating people. You’d be surprised the dearth of knowledge that people have of the Everglades.
Q: Why not just pave over all that wetland? You lose the water. People don’t make the connection, but without surface water, you have no groundwater. We’ve already sacrificed 50 percent of our original dowry of surface water. It’s all of a sudden dawning on us that we’re going to run out of water if we don’t conserve it and manage it better.
Q: Are you thinking about retiring? I’ve worked for four mayors and six public utility directors. I’ve got some special projects that I definitely want to see through fruition. I’m mentoring one person to take my place. I care dearly for West Palm Beach. Being a public servant of a place that hatched me is probably one of the more important honors. I only hope I’m given the opportunity to give back a little more in the time given me. It (Grassy Waters) doesn’t really have a voice. Or a vote.