Metro

WaterFire faces wrinkle due to federal budget cuts

WaterFire is a major tourist draw for Providence. Downtown rivers are studded with fires, and musicians play along the route, attracting up to 1 million people over the summer.
Mary Beth Meehan
WaterFire is a major tourist draw for Providence. Downtown rivers are studded with fires, and musicians play along the route, attracting up to 1 million people over the summer.

PROVIDENCE — Providence’s public arts display WaterFire is dealing with a watery problem 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 rivers are dredged, the city’s hurricane barrier, which is owned by the 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.

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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 federal 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.

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‘‘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 One of those dates is May 25, the first WaterFire of the year. Evans said the opening will go on as scheduled, even though flooding is predicted on the lowest paths.

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