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Inside WaterFire: Navigating Tidal Challenges

Most fans of WaterFire know that the ‘Water’ in our name refers to the three rivers that flow through Downtown Providence. What many do not realize is that those same rivers rise and fall with the tides of Narragansett Bay at least 2 times a day.


Unfortunately, since it was last dredged in 1998, siltation from upstream sources has gradually and continuously filled areas of the river along Waterplace Park. As years have gone by without regular dredging, the navigable water levels in the park have significantly dropped giving us an ever narrowing window of possible dates on which to light WaterFire. In 2013, the river will be deep enough on only 5 of the 26 Saturday nights within our normal season from May through November. Unfortunately, 2014 and 2015 aren’t looking any better.

This is just part of the complexity of planning an event that is dependent on so many human and natural variables with a large percentage out of our control. We always attempt to schedule WaterFire on good tide dates when we can, but sponsors often have a specific event for which they are commissioning WaterFire and many times cannot move their date. In addition to sponsor schedules, we receive requests to produce WaterFire in conjunction with other specific events in Providence. This year we will be working with more than 15 organizations to schedule lightings that coordinate with their activities. The depth and breadth of the planning challenges that we face this year has resulted in the delayed release of the 2013 WaterFire event schedule. We normally like to have all of these logistical details worked out by April so we can release our event schedule well in advance the first lighting date.

However, sometimes Mother Nature just refuses to work nicely with all of these other facts and that’s when we have to call in the Army!

Waterplace Basin during low tideWell actually we call the Army Corp of Engineers who are the operators of the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier which can maintain the water in the rivers at a constant navigable level. Over the years, we have successfully worked with the City of Providence, State of Rhode Island and the Army Corps of Engineers to effectively manage water levels by opening and closing the hurricane barrier. Utilizing the hurricane barrier in 2013 became even more important as 11 out of the 16 potential lighting dates have uncooperative tides.

While navigating the tides can be tricky enough, we were recently presented an additional challenge with the possibility of sequestration having a negative impact on the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers’ and their ability to pay overtime to staff to close the hurricane barrier in non-emergency situations.

The good news is that a strong, dedicated team lead by the entire Rhode Island Congressional delegation (Senator Jack Reed, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Congressman James Langevin and Congressman David Cicilline) is working hard at resolving the problem. We are optimistic and are proceeding with planning to present a complete WaterFire season of at least 14 full lightings in 2013.

About the author

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I've worked at WaterFire Providence since 2003. For the first 9 years of my career, I worked in the Production Shop learning all of the details that go into the physical production of the event. In 2012 transitioned to the role of managing WaterFire's social media and web presence. I now head up WaterFire Providence's digital projects including, web, social, databases, and our physical IT infrastructure.

4 thoughts on “Inside WaterFire: Navigating Tidal Challenges”

  1. Have been waiting for the schedule to come out since February! We love WaterFire and are turning friends on to it. A highlight of our summers. Could you do some crowdfunding, kinda like Kickstart? So you can dredge the river? Keep the light burning.

  2. I live in New York and it seems every time I’m in RI there is not a lighting. Please, what is the Schedule so I may plan accordingly?

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