Willacy County Navigation District Executive Director Ron Mills and public policy advocate Ron Whitlock are pictured with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff from the agency’s Galveston office to discuss when Port Mansfield’s ship channel will be dredged to a depth of 14 feet.

PORT MANSFIELD, RGV – With tens of millions of dollars now appropriated by Congress to dredge Port Mansfield’s ship channel, Willacy County Navigation District’s leaders are thinking of ways to improve its commercial viability.

Ron Mills, the district’s executive director, says that with a 14-feet draught, it is possible that ocean-going barges and tugs could use the port. Asked what commodities might go in or out of the port, Mills said:

“We have always talked about aggregates but that is a very low-commodity in terms of dollar value. I have actually started reaching out… we are thinking of setting up a mutual agreement with the Port of Harlingen. They are looking to send containers north with commodities out of their port, cotton and things of that nature. Well, there is no money in that if a tow and barge comes south empty. So, once you bring a container south and give it to Port Mansfield and drop off a container in Port Mansfield, you then have a short 20-mile trip to Harlingen, load up and head north again. So then it is viable for someone to service the Valley.”

Ron Mills

Hundreds of tons of sand and silt were deposited in Port Mansfield’s ship channel from turbulent tides during Hurricane Harvey. As a result even fishing boats found it hard to get in or out of the harbor. Mills could see the port’s commercial viability coming to an end and set about contacting everyone he knew in Washington, D.C. For years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had told him it did not have enough funds to fully dredge the ship channel. 

However, working with public policy advocate Ron Whitlock, Mills set up meetings with multiple federal agencies and elected officials. Their perseverance paid off on July 5, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notified the port that funds had been appropriated to fully dredge the ship channel.

The deepened channel will stretch about 12.5 miles, from the offshore sea buoy on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Padre Island National Seashore all the way in to the harbor. The channel will be 14 feet deep, 25 foot wide at the bottom, and 200 foot wide at the top.

Asked when the dredging operation will start, Mills said:

“They (the Corps of Engineers) are going to do a band-aid job to get the mariners in and out of port, between the intracoastal waterway and the harbor. That will be done probably in the November and December timeframe. Sometime between January and August of next year the major job will begin.”

Mills explained that there are several major environmental concerns that need to be taken into account.

“We have three major environmental windows we have to watch out for. There is a seagrass period that starts roughly at the end of March and runs through October. They don’t want people messing up the seagrass, dumping materials on top of it. There is also a sea turtle window that starts in the April-May timeframe. But, with the sea turtle window, the ladies and gentlemen that work in the national park are not as concerned as they normally would be because the sea turtles basically have no place to nest. So, they are at the point where, you know what, give us the material whenever it is so we can put our turtles in a place to nest. But, it is still a window that we have to be concerned with.”

Mills said that traditionally, half of the dredged material gets deposited on islands that are basically created from previous dredging exercises. 

“Those islands have rookeries on them. They have birds living there. So, we have to watch for the migratory bird season as well. We have three environmental windows where we can’t really work in,” Mills said.

“So, this project may get pushed back to July or August of next year. But, the comforting thing about it is, even though the money was approved on July 5 of 2018, it is a 2019 budget item. So, it is a 2019 project. If we get started as late as July or August, it does not matter. The money is ours, it has already been put aside in a bank account to be transferred to the Galveston District which manages our area. So, we are ready to move. It is going to happen.”

Asked if the dredging of Port Mansfield’s ship channel is a “game changer” for Willacy County, one of the poorest counties in Texas, Mills said:

“Absolutely. If I was looking to bring a container operation and some repair facilities we are talking a minimum of 20 to 30 jobs that pay very good money. Also, we have another almost 2,000 feet of sea wall we want to redo. We, theoretically could bring in three, four, or five businesses. As soon as one business comes in it shows there is viability.”

Mills predicted that once there is more commercial activity at Port Mansfield, the Texas Department of Transportation will show more interest it expanding the town’s airport. He said he has been working in this project for the past four years. 

“If I can get an expanded airport, then I might be able to bring in wealthier fisherman, sportsmen, outdoorsmen, who bring in their own vessels and yachts. Or, they fly in on their own plane.”

All the discussion about increasing commercial activities will not lessen Port Mansfield’s status as a great place to fish, Mills said.

“Yes, we want to make it a commercial port and make it commercially viable so that we can continue to receive services from the Corps. But, at the same time, Port Mansfield is one of the top fishing destinations on the planet. Statistically, it is, like, in the top ten in the world. We don’t want to change that. We want Port Mansfield to stay one of the best fishing destinations in the world. So, if we can bring in additional commercial ventures but at the same time not impact the fishing environment, that is what we want to do.”

Asked if he ever thought he would land the tens of millions of dollars to dredge the ship channel, Mills said:

“I figured we might get another million bucks, just to help keep our channel between the Intracoastal and the harbor, but I did not see any chance we would get everything all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico, particularly from the sea buoy all the way to the harbor. The people in the Corps of Engineers have told me for four years, it is never going to happen. They were surprised by the fact that the money was deposited for them to do a major operation.”

Mills gave a lot of credit to Whitlock, who worked his network of elected officials in the Rio Grande Valley, Austin and Washington, D.C. Whitlock’s efforts included a trip to the nation’s capital in June.

Ron Whitlock

“Since the port and the community of Port Mansfield was the first along ‘America’s Energy Coast’ to suffer Hurricane Harvey’s wrath a year ago and, also, since they are in Willacy County, Texas, the undisputed poorest county in the whole state of Texas, its only right and proper that it be the first of Texas’ ports and communities to be restored,” Whitlock said.

“I commend Congress for recognizing that one of their first priorities and responsibilities was to fully-fund making Port Mansfield, Texas fully operational again, for the very first time since it was built in 1962.”

Whitlock said that while tens of millions of dollars are safely deposited in a bank for the Corps of Engineers to draw from, his work in Willacy County is far from finished.

“With the congressional funding effort now having been accomplished, Ronald Mills and I are now fully committed to work to bring jobs, economic opportunity and a better quality of life, not only to the port and community of Port Mansfield, but to the citizens of Willacy County, Texas. We pray that this be ready as soon as Port Mansfield’s dredging has been completed.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Ron Mills and Ron Whitlock at the Weslaco district office of Congressman Filemon Vela.

Editor’s Note: The above story is the second in a two-part series on Par Mansfield. Click here to read Part One.