PORT MANSFIELD, RGV – Ron Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District, has thanked Governor Greg Abbott, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela for pushing to get more funding for the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

If their funding requests are successful, the Corps would have the money to help renovate Texas ports damaged by Hurricane Harvey, including Port Mansfield.

“In our case, it could be a three-way win – for ourselves, the Town of South Padre Island, and the National Seashore at South Padre Island,” explained Mills. “The Mansfield Cut all the way to the harbor itself is in a pretty bad condition. About half of our channel has gotten down to about two, three or four feet deep. We need our channel dredged and both South Padre Island and the National Seashore could do with the sand and silt we dredge out.”

Port Mansfield suffered the first casualty on mainland USA when Hurricane Harvey roared in. The Gulf Princess, a dive and research vessel that took welders out into the Gulf of Mexico to weld underwater pipelines, ran aground at Port Mansfield as it tried to find safe harbor during the Category 4 storm.

“Since Hurricane Harvey, the Governor has written letters to the Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C. Congressman Vela has also reached out for emergency funding. I have met with Senator Cornyn’s staff on two occasions. I want to thank them for their help,” Mills said.

“We know there are funds out there for the Corps to tap into due to the storms. Understandably, though, the federal government has spent a billion dollars in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and however much they have spent in Florida. But, our whole project, according to the Corps’ own numbers to dredge from the Gulf of Mexico to the harbor is $9.8 million. It seems a lot of money when you talk local budgets – Willacy County does not have $9.8 million in the whole county – but when it comes to a port, it is a small sum of money. If we just do the entrance to our harbor, I need about $350,000.”

Ronald Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District.

Mills said he believes there is emergency funding available due to the recent hurricanes.

“If the Corps declares it an emergency, they do the work and I do not have to do the work. If I have to do the work, there is a permitting process that I have already entered it. That could take up to a year. But if the Corps steps in, they could just do it tomorrow. And they take care of it because it is their project.

Mills points out that all the Texas sea ports north of Port of Mansfield were affected by Hurricane Harvey.

“We had two issues. One, a ship running aground in no longer navigable waters. And the second was that our harbor shoaled up significantly more than it was. We already had a problem. When Harvey came in it pushed in the water but as it passed us it created a vacuum. As you saw in some of the footage in Florida, how the bays emptied out before the storm arrived, well we had the same effect but on the back side of the storm. It sucked all the water out of the Laguna Madre, which is incredibly shallow, and it piled up puddles of sand and it made our harbor worse than it was.”

Mills said as things stand Port Mansfield has no commercial traffic to speak of. “We have no barges and even the larger shrimp boats cannot get in. The 30-foot boats cannot get out any more.” Asked if the Port’s revenues had been affected by Hurricane Harvey, Mills said: “We will not see it now, but end of next Spring we will see it.”

The last time the Corps of Engineers dredged the ship channel at Port Mansfield was in 2015. “They did it for about $280,000. We may be shallower now.”

The Coast Pilot

Mills spoke in depth about the Gulf Princess running aground and why it should never have happened.

“I argued from the first day I met the Corps of Engineers that Port Mansfield is a safe haven. It is a place where mariners would run to in a storm. The Coast Guard on South Padre Island, which I used to be stationed at, had it in their standard orders that you would go either to the turning basin at Brownsville harbor or Port Mansfield for safety if a storm came. The Corps has always argued that is not true. The scenario that led up to the ship’s grounding was this: the captain is offshore, Harvey literally produces itself overnight. We went to bed with a tropical wave and woke up with a hurricane. The captain was trapped in open waters in the Gulf and he was running for safety. He had two choices. He could either drive directly into the storm to go to Brownsville, or he could have headed away from the storm and try to make it to Corpus Christi. Had he done that the storm would have overtaken him and that would probably have been worse for him. So, what did he do as a prudent mariner? There is a thing called the Coast Pilot. He looked in the Coast Pilot and said, oh, look, there is an opening right there in Port Mansfield. The Coast Pilot has not been updated since the 1980s. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Port Mansfield was a port that offshore supply vessels for rigs came out of. The Coast Pilot says this port is used by offshore supply vessels. As a prudent mariner he went into Port Mansfield thinking he was going to find safe water. He went through the center of the channel. The range markers are still in place, established and still maintained by the Coast Guard. He ran the range markers and a third of the way into the channel he ran aground. But on paper it is a navigable water way.”

The Princess Gulf was stuck at Port Mansfield for 18 days. An outside firm out of Louisiana pulled the vessel out and eventually re-floated it. The company’s rescue team pushed the vessel up against a grounded barge and used that as a working platform. They repaired the holes the Princess Gulf had in the hull, took the water out and took it to Louisiana to be repaired.

Possible Consumers

Mills explained why both the National Seashore at South Padre Island and the Town of South Padre Island could do with any sand and silt dredged from Port Mansfield.

“There are two consumers of the product that are very interested in it. One is South Padre Island. I had been informed they were going to use the debris from the Brownsville Ship Channel when they take it to 52 feet in their big project. But, apparently, that is not the type of material they need. It is not really beach material. They are very interested in the fact that we are using or have these millions of yards of material that needs to be moved. They have shown, recently, an interest in it,” Mills said.

Mills said that after the Port Mansfield ship channel is dredged, the sand and silt would be pumped onto barges and transported to South Padre Island. “They would pump it either directly down to the beaches that need reinforcing, or they would dump it into the open Gulf and let nature settle it back onto the beach. Either way it works for me. It is out of my way.”

Mills said the second request he received for the dredged material is the National Seashore.

“The National Seashore has two big concerns. One is the seashore itself, where in six or ten places, the wash throughs have come through the Island to the Gulf. This is big problem for them because they are losing their national park. The second is the north jetty, the Port Mansfield Cut, which is the southern boundary of the National Park. It has been eroded away so much it is further back than the rocks on the jetty themselves. Any good storm that came directly in could potentially wash through and they could lose the southern boundary of the national park. So, they are very interested.”

Mills said the National Parks Service has been negotiating nationally for all the National Seashores of the United States with the Army Corps of Engineers to help them with beach revitalization. “So, they are very interested in having the silt and sand that is in our channel pumped into open water or directly onto the beach to fix their jetty problem and/or the beach erosion problem. This would save me a disposal cost. Somebody else gets rid of it, I just get it out of my way.”

Mills said there is enough material there to make South Padre and the National Parks Service happy.

“It is the width of the channel, which is several hundred yards wide, and probably two miles long for the initial area that needs to be dredged. That is just the Mansfield Cut. Then there is a shoal which is about half a mile further in. That blocks off the channel completely and that is only three feet deep, and it is not just soft silt, it is actually hard beach type sand,” Mills said.

“And then the harbor itself, we have probably 30,000 maybe 40,000 yards of material that is blocking the harbor into Port Mansfield. So, we have lot spots that have a lot of sand. But, it is definitely many millions of yards of sand that are available to be moved.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows the Princess Gulf at Port Mansfield. Photo is courtesy of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.