Posted: August 12, 2021 at 2:02 pm

For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Miami Waterkeeper Executive Director Rahcel Silverstein, to learn more about diverse ways to engage your community around water.

Miami Waterkeeper affiliate profile

Where: Florida, USA

Number of regions: 6

Number of sites: 64

Sampling season: Year Round

Sampling frequency: Weekly

Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2012

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Or: Hello Rachel, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Would you please introduce yourself, and tell us a little bit about your role and how you got there?

Rachel: Yes, my name is Rachel Silverstein and I’m the Executive Director and Waterkeeper for Miami Waterkeeper. Our watersheds are in South Florida, Miami Dade, and Broward County.

I actually started my work with the water as an intern at, what was then called San Diego Baykeeper, back in college and really fell in love with the waterkeeper movement. I then went to graduate school studying corals and climate change at the University of Miami and undertook a Knauss Sea Grant Fellowship working for the Senate. A short time after, there was an opening at the Miami Waterkeeper (then called Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper) and I joined as the only staff member in 2014. We have been growing ever since.

Or: That’s fantastic, it’s great to hear a story like that of really starting at the entry level and becoming a waterkeeper. I am sure this gives a lot of hope to many water interns out there. Before we dive into a few of your community engagement programs would you please tell me a bit about your watershed?

Rachel: Our main water body is Biscayne Bay, a shallow tropical lagoon that is the jewel of our community. It had thriving seagrass meadows and clean water. It has a mix of fresh and salty water that makes it very productive as an estuary and a nursery for baby fish. It has over a dozen threatened and endangered species. We have a national park in the bay that brings many tourists to the area.

Unfortunately, it also has a lot of pressure from pollution. The water quality and the marine ecosystem are declining. Miami is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country and the sources of pollution that we deal with are storm water runoff, septic systems leakage, and fertilizer overuse.

There is still a lot to save, even though it is not what it once was.

Or: Absolutely, and you have a few programs which you run to protect the bay. The first one that I saw on your website was the Junior Ambassador Program. Could you tell me more about that?

Rachel: The Junior Ambassador Program is one of our signature outreach and education programs. It’s an environmental leadership training program for high school students. Half of the year they spend in the classroom, learning civics, meeting elected officials, practicing public speaking, and learning about the watershed. The other half of the year they are in the field, doing research, learning about water sampling, and doing restoration work. We really encourage our students to stay involved and help with the next year’s Junior Ambassadors.

Or: How many students can apply each year? And how do participants find you?

Rachel: We have about thirty students each year. The way we recrute is by working with schools and teachers in the community. We have teachers who are aware of the program and recommend students to get involved.

We are also looking to expand the reach of the program and reduce barriers for entry. Although this is a free program, we also recognize that it requires transportation and scheduling. We would like to open the program up to more students.

Or: That is a great goal. Would you recommend other organizations to start similar programs?

Rachel: I would! A lot of groups could be sharing resources. We are on different watersheds and a lot of the skills are translatable to different communities. The same way that you shared Swim Guide, so successfully, between waterkeepers. It has been an amazing tool to help us grow.

Any water organization who is interested in our program is more than welcome to talk to us. I think that one of the most important things to consider is engagement beyond the program – and to create ways for students that have graduated to stay connected and active with your organization.

Or: That is very important. If you train young adults to be active, it stands to reason that you would provide them with opportunities to act out what they’ve learned. I would like to move on to another program that you have, the Day on the Bay program. Would you tell me a little bit about that?

Rachel: The Day on the Bay program is a three hour boat tour of our watershed, Biscayne Bay. It is an educational tour where we bring experts and other speakers to speak to community leaders, elected officials, sponsors and their staff. On the tour we not only tell them about the issues of Biscayne Bay but also show them our watershed.

Or: That is a great way to discuss water issues, by being on the water and seeing it first hand.

Rachel: Exactly. We talk about stormwater runoff and show them an outfall. A lot of people have never been out on a boat on Biscayne Bay and it is a great way to get them to come and listen. We manage to give them a great experience while showing them how important and unique Biscayne Bay really is. We definitely saw the impact that the tour has, especially with elected officials. Once they come on the tour and meet our water they always become a better ally for the bay.

Or: So you have a program dedicated to high school students and you have one that is focused on smaller groups. How do you engage the general public?

Rachel: We have the 1000 Eyes On The Water program. This program teaches members of the public to observe, document, and report pollution on the water. This program is definitely something that could be adapted to different watersheds. It is a great way to engage the public.

Or: How do you participate in the program?

Rachel: We teach individuals about the ecosystem and introduce them to the most common types of pollution they might encounter. We give them the basic understanding of what is OK and not OK to see on the water. We do this through a one-hour free training video online. Anyone can take the training and once you complete the training you can be a part of the team. This program also works well with Swim Guide because our members can report about the pollution they are seeing via the Swim Guide App.

Or: This is a question I try to ask everyone in these interviews: What is your watershed’s secret?

Rachel: Miami-Dade county is the only county in the country to have two national parks. We have Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. You can go from the fresh wetlands to the coral reefs which are just a short distance away. These diverse ecosystems are definitely worth a visit.

Or: I would love to see that. Thank you Rachel Silverstein, the Miami Waterkeeper, for your time doing this interview.

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