PORT MANSFIELD, RGV – In a move that is being called a lifesaver for Willacy County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced it will dredge the channel from the Intercoastal Waterway to the Port Mansfield Turning Basin.

There has been no dredging of Port Mansfield since 2011, resulting in larger sail boats, charter boats and commercial barges being unable to use the channel. Commercial barges need a depth of 12 feet of water and, with the silt accumulating Port Mansfield’s channel has shrunk to five or six feet.

Ronald Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District.
Ronald Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District.

“We were in a precarious situation. Probably within a year and a half we would have quite likely lost all access into and out of the port of Port Mansfield,” said Ronald Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District, in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian.

“With this announcement by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, we should not only be able to have easy access for recreational boaters but we should even potentially be able to bring in commercial vendors and industrial vendors from this point forward, which is the purpose of this town in the first place.

“I am looking forward to the opportunity to grow the community and actually bring some revenue into the county, which is in dire straits for revenue right now.”

The Corps of Engineers is expected to start dredging the Port Mansfield channel on or around Feb. 16 and the operation is expected to take about two weeks.

“Upon completion of the project at the beginning of March, the port at Port Mansfield will be at an adequate depth to begin receiving commercial business that will be at an adequate depth to begin receiving commercial business that could range from commercial fishing vessels to coastal barge traffic,” Mills said, in a news release. “These developments should offer some level of immediate relief to the local business owners and significant relief to Willacy County over the long term.” The news release has as its headline, “Port Mansfield Reopening for Business.”

Mills said he wished to publicly thank Brigadier General David C. Hill, commander of the southwest division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Mills and Willacy County Navigation District Chairman Thomas Rains, Jr., met Hill at the Brigadier General’s office in Dallas in early December.

“There is no question, absolutely and unequivocally that this dredging would not be taking place, that you would not have had any dredging at Port Mansfield, had it not been for the face-to-face meeting between myself and General Hill and General Hill taking the time to listen and understand the plight of the community,” Mills told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“I tried to explain to him, this is not just about Port Mansfield, this is about Willacy County. You are not trying to save a town of 500 people. You are trying to save a county of 25,000. There is no visible revenue stream in the short term coming into Willacy County. If we are going to bring revenue into the county, the only place to do it is through the port. If you do not save the port, you have not just lost the town, you have lost the county. I think the General heard that. He listened.”

Mills said he had met with Hill on a Thursday morning and by the following Friday afternoon, the dredging division in Galveston was being asked what it would cost to get Port Mansfield taken care of. “Apparently, the General decided to help us immediately and gave his team the marching orders, get this thing done. We are very grateful.”

Mills said that typically, the Corps of Engineers dredges the southern part of the Inter Coastal Waterway every two years. Unfortunately, he said, Port Mansfield does not qualify for this kind of work.

“You have to produce a million tons of material a year for the Army Corps to provide you the service. As they are doing the Inter Coastal Waterway, if you have the funds you can pay the Army Corps and they will divert into your channel and maintain your channel for you and all you pay for is the actual expense of them coming into your port.”

Mills said Willacy County Navigation District will try to do this in the future. “We will try to get the Corps to divert for a week or so, come in, maintain our channel and continue on their trip. By doing this we can save ourselves a considerable amount of money. We have to get some commercial enterprise of some sort to get some revenue to pay for this,” Mills said.

Asked to what depth the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will dredge the Port Mansfield channel, Mills said it remains to be seen.

“They have to dredge eight feet which means they dredge to ten feet, knowing that the average will be eight. I have talked to the dredge company a couple of times in the last month or so and they tell me the reality is they are probably going to end up at a much greater depth than ten feet. Probably, 12 feet or more because the silt is so soft that in the process of creating this eight to ten feet channel they are actually are going to end up with a 12 foot channel  or more,” Mills said.

Asked what depth the channel has to be for small commercial barges to navigate – which is basically what Port Mansfield could handle – Mills said: “You need at least 12 feet of water. I feel pretty good, having talked to these gentlemen that we are going to end up with at least that much water.”

Brigadier General David C. Hill heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' southwest division.
Brigadier General David C. Hill heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ southwest division.

Port Mansfield last catered for commercial barges around 20 years ago, Mills said. “We had the capacity probably up until about 2004 but we did not have commercial barges that recently. It was probably as far back as the 90s that they actually had commercial barges coming in and out of the port.”

Mills said that while Port Mansfield remains a “picturesque little hamlet” it needs commercial activity in order to survive.

“Our ideal customer, if I get lucky, is a company that can unload small commodities like sand or even sugar, things that come in by barge. We need something that maintains Port Mansfield in the capacity it is now, as the picturesque little hamlet that it is, but that it is also able to generate revenue,” Mills said.

“We need this for two reasons. One, Willacy County as a whole has no major revenue stream and two the port itself needs to maintain this channel itself from now on, not just for commercial traffic but for boaters and other things. Unless I have revenue to pay for this dredging operation every two years, which is going to be probably $2 million to $3 million every two years, we will not be able to maintain the channel and we will be back where we are. We need to continually re-dredge this channel and we need revenue sources for that. With as small a community as this is, I cannot create a tax base sufficient to do it so we need to find another means and that would be commercial enterprise.”

One immediate beneficiary of the dredging, Mills said, is likely to be Port Mansfield’s annual fishing tournament, which usually takes place in July. “Now, it is up to the Port Mansfield Chamber of Commerce to get their ducks in a row. There is no excuse now for letting the boats pull into South Padre and for South Padre to get all that revenue that has been going there. The boats should be able to come to us, which is how it should always have been. Hopefully, this will allow us to have a significant increase in the number of participants in the tournament. Who knows, maybe have people stay in the hotels and buy their food and gas here.”