RAYMONDVILLE, RGV – Fears that President Trump would swipe the money set aside to dredge the Port Mansfield ship channel in order to build a border wall have been allayed.

Willacy County Navigation District learned last week that the $17 million earmarked for dredging operations was safely deposited with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

In fact, work crews are expected at Port Mansfield in the next week or so to start phase one of a three-part dredging project.

Ron Mills

“There were a lot of fears that the president was going to take the money allocated to us,” said Ron Mills, port director for WCND.

“When he took $3.4 billion from the Army Corps of Engineers’ operating funds, we were concerned. Fortunately for us, the appropriation was signed a week before the decision was made to take the funds.”

Mills said he always thought federal funding for the dredging was safe because it came about through a congressional emergency appropriation in July, 2018.

“The money was appropriated for us so I do not know that he (Trump) could have taken it. But, there was some concern. We asked the congressman’s office and the Corps’ office and no one could give us a straight answer,” Mills said.

“Last Wednesday I talked to the Army Corps project manager and the good news is the tug boats and the equipment for the dredging operation are due to arrive in Port Mansfield any day. It will be a three-phase project that is going to take about a year to do.”

Asked if he was entirely convinced President Trump will not take “Port Mansfield funds” to build a border wall, Mills said: “Short of a military invasion, nothing is going to impact that money. I was reassured by numerous Corps personnel last week that the money is not going away. Before, they could not give me straight answer to that. Now they have.”

Three-phase project

Mills said the dredging work will be done over the next year in three phases. Phase One will be to cut what is called a pilot channel. A dredging company will come through the area and clear sand and silt from the intracoastal waterway all the way to the harbor to depth of about ten feet or so. 

“This will be just enough for recreational boaters and some light commercial fishing vessels to get in and out of port,” Mills said. “That will be a band aid for us until the fall. In two or three weeks they should be finished.”

In July or August, the plan is for the Army Corps to come back do more dredging. The material will be disposed off on Bird Island. This will help create a bird sanctuary. Phase Two could take about two months.

Phase Three, Mills said, will take place in September and October. 

“Due to the nature of the sea conditions and stuff at the jetties versus what is in the harbor, there are probably going to be two large dredges operating simultaneously. One will work offshore from the sea buoy all the way through the cut, and the other one will work from the harbor out towards that direction.”

Mills said half the material will end up on Bird Island and the other half on the national seashore. “This will help revitalize the beaches, thus providing a nesting area for sea turtles. Phase Three will probably take between four to six months.”

Commercial activity

Asked how big the project is, Mills said: “Major. It is as big as it was when the port was created in 1962. We are talking about tens of millions of tons of material being dredged.”

Asked how important dredging the ship channel is, Mills said:

“It is critical for Port Mansfield. Port Mansfield has been running around with three to five feet of water for years now. I have been here for five years, in my first year here I was fortunate to get it dredged back to ten feet. The following winter, in 2016, we had massive amounts of rainfall, it flooded San Perlita and other places. All that material ran into the Laguna Madre and basically sealed off our entrance harbor. Then, Hurricane Harvey came and sealed off the cut to the Gulf. So, there has been no access for many years. We have probably not had full draught access since the 1990s. So, this is huge.”

Since the news came out that Port Mansfield’s ship channel would be dredged to 18 feet, Mills has been taking calls from companies interested in using the port. 

“We have started soliciting and been receiving some very good feedback on the opportunities of bringing commercial traffic into the port. This will stimulate Willacy County, the poorest county in the state. We are working on a grant where rural areas are highest priority. So, we are hoping we can tap into some of that money.”

Asked how he is marketing Port Mansfield, Mills said by word of mouth. 

“I really believe this will rejuvenate our county. I think the port is finally going to fulfill its destiny, to be the future of Willacy County. Give me a couple of years to get this rolling but it will transpire.”

Port of Harlingen

Mills said Port Mansfield is not the only port that will benefit from deepening the Mansfield Cut. The Port of Harlingen does about 620,000 tons of business a year, including the transportation of fuel and sugar up the Intracoastal Waterway. Mills said the Port of Harlingen stands to benefit. 

“The Port of Harlingen wants to get to that magic million tons mark, which is the point at which the Army Corps will put you on their dredging program. One of the ways they can do that is to bring offshore barges or incredibly small ships through the Mansfield Cut to support their port,” Mills said.

“They have a need to bring in another 400 or 500 tons of material. What better way than to cut through to the ocean” So, the potential to help Harlingen is definitely there. They realize that if this channel gets opened it is going to help them a lot. It is only a 20-mile run and they can be in Harlingen.”

Port Mansfield is not developed to handle the types of products the Port of Harlingen moves.

“The larger stuff, we cannot accommodate – we are still going to be restricted in our draught to about 16 feet. A big, offshore vessel is probably going to go into the Port of Harlingen, rather than Port Mansfield. Good bless them for it. They can help keep the channel open from this point forward.”

Future projects

Mills said there is a major project he feels he has a chance of landing. He rates his chances at better than 50-50.

“It would bring tens of millions of dollars into the port area and unknown amounts of money into the Willacy County area. And that is just one project. That does not count container traffic and other things we are trying to secure. We have a very bright future once the seawalls are installed and the dredging is finished.”

What a difference a year makes. When Mills talked to the maritime administration this time last year about the improvements he wanted to make at the port they just chucked. 

“‘Really,’ they said, ‘why would we spend five or six million dollars in your port when there is no one who can get in to do any work?’ It was a very valid observation on their part. It would have been a waste of taxpayers dollars. When we have water there will be a very legitimate reason to spend money.”

Shepherd Group

Ron Mills, port director of Willacy County Navigation District, and Ron Whitlock, public policy advocate, are pictured at the Weslaco District office of U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela.

In recent years, WCND has supplemented the hiring of lobbyists by bringing in a local governmental affairs group, The Shepherd Group. Mills said the group has been a great partner to have.

“Without doubt the Shepherd Group has represented our needs very well at the state and federal level. I believe they had a direct or at a minimum an indirect impact on the 99-year lease legislation.”

Under this legislation, homes at Port Mansfield can be leased for 99 years, rather than 50.

“In fact, the legislation would not have even been presented if it were not for the Shepherd Group. They explained it to the offices of the senators and the representatives and the Governor’s Office.”

Likewise, the funding for the dredging operation.

“I feel fervently that we would not have the $17 million had the Shepherd Group had not gone to Washington on our behalf. The visit was made last June. On the 5th of July the money was deposited and our local representative did not know it was there. It was done through communication and working with the right people.”

Mills added: “We have been paying lobbyists since I have been here to lobby the Corps and they do a good job on the Corps. But they have not been as successful with the political entities. The Shepherd Group has been able to cover that void both at the state and federal level. It has paid off in spades, no question about it.”

Asked if WCND has any other projects in the works, Mills said:

“Everything is so dependent on the dredging. A container company out of Victoria, Texas, is interested in shipping. I will go to Victoria to talk to them about bringing materials. Interest in this port is growing. There are things we would not have even reached for the last couple of years. Now it is in our lap and we are ready to move. 

“Hundreds of Willacy County residents are going to have jobs as a result of this port and a lot more money will be going into the county’s coffers. The citizens will be paid back for the taxes they have contributed all these years.”