06.06.14

Congress to Help WaterFire Navigate Tidal Challenges

Bipartisan Bill Allows Army Corps to Assist with Popular Providence Event Series

Providence, RI – WaterFire is expected to light the Providence River as scheduled this summer after U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed helped pass legislation enabling WaterFire to better navigate tidal challenges at future events in Rhode Island’s capital city. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) reauthorization, which was passed by both Houses of Congress in recent weeks and will soon be signed by the President, gives the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the authority it needs to receive outside reimbursement to operate the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in support of recreational and civic events, like WaterFire.

WaterFire, a public art installation on the Providence River featuring floating braziers, requires consistent water levels to accommodate its bonfires.  In the past, the Corps had been able to adjust its maintenance and testing schedule for the hurricane barrier to help support these events.  In the spring of 2013, federal budget cuts known as sequestration led the Corps to restrict operations of the barrier except during emergencies.  Sequestration also prompted a review of Corps policies, which showed the Corps did not have clear authority to operate the barrier to support recreational activities even when it is reimbursed by a non-federal entity.

Senator Whitehouse served on the WRRDA conference committee and fought successfully to include language granting the Corps the necessary authority to accept payment for assisting in WaterFire events.  Senator Reed spearheaded a similar effort last year and worked closely with Whitehouse throughout the process.

“WaterFire is a hub of economic and artistic activity in downtown Providence,” said Whitehouse, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Corps.  “The legislative agreement announced today provides a long-term solution to ensure that this Rhode Island tradition continues.  This is good news for our state, and for all of the shops, hotels, and restaurants that benefit from every WaterFire event.”

“This is a commonsense solution that will allow the Army Corps to work with the City Providence and WaterFire on a reasonable plan to assist in WaterFire events without additional costs to the federal government or risk to public safety,” said Reed.

Ownership of the Fox Point Hurricane barrier was transferred from the City of Providence to the Corps in 2009.  Since then, the Corps has invested approximately $10.5 million to repair, operate, and maintain the barrier – costs that the City would otherwise bear.

Under the WRRDA bill the Corps will continue to own and operate the barrier, but it will have the discretion to enter into funding agreements with the City and other partners to cover the cost of operating the barrier for WaterFire.  According to WaterFire officials, WaterFire Providence contributes millions of dollars in tax revenue to the state and creates as much as $70 million in economic impact for the community.

The WRRDA conference report also includes a number of other priorities for Rhode Island, including:

  • A provision advocated for by Sen. Whitehouse authorizing a new program to carry out projects that would enhance ocean and coastal ecosystem resiliency;
  • A provision that would improve transparency in the Corps’ process for approving projects under its consideration;
  • Reauthorization of the National Dam Safety Program Act;
  • A provision to increase the per-project federal spending limit for Army Corps Continuing Authorities Programs to account for inflation and construction cost increases;
  • A provision authorizing the Corps to carry out watershed assessments after disasters and implement flood control and ecosystem restoration projects identified in the assessments;
  • A provision creating a regional program to execute small projects to restore aquatic ecosystems in coastal waters from Virginia to Maine.

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