WaterFire faces wrinkle due to federal budget cuts

AP News
Posted: Apr 15, 2013 1:15 PM

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Providence's public art display WaterFire is dealing with a wrinkle due to automatic federal budget cuts.

The event is one of the city's most important tourist attractions, drawing up to 1 million visitors annually over a dozen or more nights a year. Downtown rivers are lined with fires, and music and performers entertain people on the shores. Boaters keep the flames lit for several hours after sundown, gliding from brazier to brazier to add cedar logs to the flames.

But in recent years, silt has caused the water level to drop and navigation to be difficult or impossible on many WaterFire dates. As a temporary fix until the river is dredged, the city's hurricane barrier, which is owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been closed to help maintain the water level on WaterFire nights when the tide is too low or too high, which can flood some of the walking paths along the water.

WaterFire creator Barnaby Evans on Monday said the Army Corps told organizers about a week ago that it may no longer have the budget to close the barrier because of the government's automatic budget cuts. Evans said that makes his job more complicated, but he is working with the state's congressional delegation and believes they will be able to arrive at a solution.

"We remain confident that we will have a season, that we will resolve the issues, but at the moment, we are still resolving the path to that," he said.

Evans said WaterFire had asked the Army Corps to close the hurricane barrier for 11 of the planned 14 dates in 2013, nine of which are expected to have tides that are too low and two have tides that are too high. One of those dates is May 25, the first WaterFire of the year. Evans said that date will go on no matter what, even though flooding of about 6 inches is predicted on the lowest paths.

He said they were waiting to release the other planned dates for the year while they try to solve the problem.

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Tim Dugan, a spokesman for the Army Corps in New England, said it has not yet received formal word on how the automatic budget cuts will affect its operations, including operating the hurricane barrier for WaterFire.

"We've been waiting for months. We just don't know," Dugan said.

Chip Unruh, a spokesman for Sen. Jack Reed, said his office is working with WaterFire and the other three members of the congressional delegation to resolve any issues that could arise.

Evans said changing the dates they have selected won't help, because they've already scheduled a WaterFire on every date when the tide is right.

He said one possible solution would be for WaterFire to reimburse the Army Corps for the work. Dugan said he did not know whether that would be allowed under the law.