AUSTIN, Texas – Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush says he will do what he can to make sure sand dredged from the Mansfield Cut can be used to help re-nourish South Padre Island’s beach.

In a project costing more than ten million dollars, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is slated to dredge Port Mansfield’s ship channel to a depth of 17 or 18 feet later this year. Some of the sand and silt may be used to help boost the National Seashore north of Port Mansfield, while some may be shipped to SPI.

“We are all about prioritizing where dredged material can be best utilized and beach re-nourishment is time and time again the number one issue we hear about from communities up and down the coast,” Bush told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

Bush pointed out that prior to Hurricane Harvey, his office was seeking $30 million from the State of Texas for a project that would have “re-nourished” much of the Texas coast. Once Harvey hit the Texas coast in August, 2017, state leaders were not inclined to free up money in the state’s treasury for non-hurricane relief matters.

On a recent fruit run to Austin, RGV public policy advocate Ron Whitlock delivered grapefruit to Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

“Before Harvey, we asked for $30 million that would have essentially re-nourished the entirety of the Texas coast. We made the argument, not just in terms of tourism and the additional tax revenue generation, but also storm mitigation, storm surge,” Bus said.

“For every dollar you spend in that respect you get four dollars back in mitigating future damage. That is something we will continue to advocate for. It is a problem we have in Washington and Austin right now. We wait for the storm to occur and then we pass the hat around. It did not quite work but we will work at it again this session.”

Asked if he will ask for $30 million during the current legislative session, Bush said: “We have not decided how we will make our pitch. The Texas coast is the priority for this agency. Stay tuned, I will be testifying Jan. 30 in front of the Senate Finance Committee.”

Bush added that there are a variety of issues the GLO has to work on in Cameron County, not least an erosion management plan to help the city (SPI) expand northward.

“We know this is an existential issue for the city. We had our coastal team work with the county to secure funding. Allowing for that development, you can, in essence, stem the tide in terms of erosion, which is the number one issue up and down the coast,” Bush said. 

Rio Grande Valley public policy advocate Ron Whitlock met with Bush at his office in Austin on the first day of the new legislative session. “The sand that will be dredged from the Mansfield Cut would be perfect for South Padre Island,” Whitlock. “I was pleased to engage with Commissioner Bush on this issue during my recent visit.”

Whitlock said this would not be the first time the General Land Office has helped South Padre Island.

“Louie’s Backyard has been an institution on South Padre Island for decades. Commissioner Bush granted the restaurant 100 more seating spaces to expand its deck. For some reason the application had sat there in the GLO’s archives floundering. Commissioner Bush came along and signed it. So, he is already a hero on SPI.”

Bush responded: “It was the right thing to do, it was good public policy.”

During his visit, Whitlock pointed how Port Mansfield had secured around $17 million to have the Mansfield Cut dredged. He said dredging to a depth of 18 feet would be the deepest the ship channel has been since it opened in 1962.

“Great things will happen in Willacy and Cameron counties once the dredging work is done. It will allow commercial barges to get to the Port Mansfield harbor and the Port of Harlingen will have an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. These are exciting times for the Lower Rio Grande Valley,” Whitlock said.

Whitlock noted that Willacy County is the poorest county in state of Texas and thanked Commissioner Bush for providing $6.3 million to help the county with flooding and housing. 

“We went to the federal government and asked for relief,” Bush responded.

Navigation District perspective

Ron Mills is executive director of Willacy County Navigation District. In an earlier interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Mills said dredging the Mansfield Cut would be a “game changer” for Willacy County. 

“For too many years, Port Mansfield has been in a situation where it simply wanted to keep the water flowing, to keep the harbor from turning into a giant cess pool,” Mills said. “But now we are looking ahead, looking for other federal funds to rebuild our seawater infrastructure.”

Mills acknowledged that getting notification from the Corps of Engineers last July that the Port Mansfield ship channel would be dredged “took everybody by surprise.” He said Whitlock and his company, The Shepherd Group, deserved a lot of credit for visiting the offices of U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela in Washington, D.C. “Miraculously, on the fifth day of July, we learned that upwards of $20 million would be spent on the dredging project.”

Ron Mills

Mills said that knowing the ship channel will be dredged allows him to go after trade agreements with Mexican officials. He said the Port of Victoria, a shallow-draft port in Victoria, Texas, was an inspiration in this regard.

“The Port of Victoria was in just as bad a shape as Port Mansfield. But, thanks to the Eagle Ford Shale, they now have 16 barges a day coming in with oil. Each barge is equivalent to 33 trucks of oil. The Port of Victoria has become the second busiest shallow port in the country. Well, Mexico has a shale play bigger, than the Eagle Ford Shale, the Burgos Basin, and we are the nearest port.”

Mills said there was another project where The Shepherd Group was of “great assistance.” It involved legislation to allow Port Mansfield homeowners to lease their land for 99 years, rather than the traditional 50 years.

“At Port Mansfield, people own their home but lease the land. In a way it is similar to McDonald’s, which owns its restaurants but leases the land. It could be that Port Mansfield is the only community in Texas where the government is effectively the landowner,” Mills explained.

“A few years ago we tried to get the Legislature to allow 99 year leases but we got no traction. So, our board of directors commissioned The Shepherd Group and they worked on legislation with Representative Guillen and Senator Lucio. Now, a 50 year lease can be extended to 99 years, which gives peace of mind to residents who want to pass on their home to their children.”

Mills noted that of nine bills related to sea ports, Governor Abbott vetoed eight. “He did not sign the bill but he allowed it to become law. It was good public policy because they government should not get in the way.”

Speaking about Willacy County Navigation District’s work with The Shepherd Group, Mills said: “I have to say The Shepherd Group has been invaluable to us. They are advocates, they interact with a lot of politicians, even in Mexico. They were the driving force that made sure people were listening to us regarding the lease issue. They have the ear of the people that matter. It is all about relationships, which they have had for decades, their advocacy has been tremendous for us.”

Mills added: “When I got here, it was Willacy County, huh, where is that. Now, they are paying attention to us.”