PORT MANSFIELD, RGV – Ron Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District, and public policy advocate and consultant Ron Whitlock have secured tens of millions of dollars to dredge the ship channel at Port Mansfield. 

Without the ship channel being dredged, Mills said, the future of the port as a commercial entity looked bleak. Once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has dredged the channel the draught will be 14 feet, which is deep enough for ocean-going barges and tugs.

In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Mills explained how the funding was secured.

“After visiting with every politician in the United States, it felt like, myself and Mr. Ron Whitlock of the Shepherd Group were able to facilitate the federal government to give us a tremendous amount of money. I am not allowed to give the actual dollar amount but it is in the tens of millions of dollars,” Mills said.

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.

The deepened channel will stretch about 12.5 miles, Mills explained, from the offshore sea buoy on the Gulf of Mexico side of the Padre Island National Seashore all the way in to the harbor.

“It will be 14 feet deep and 25 foot wide at the bottom, which is roughly 200 foot at the top,” Mills said.

The effect, Mills said, will be to have a major commercial channel the like of which Willacy County has not seen since Port Mansfield was constructed in 1962.

“We have had spot dredging for many years, a little bit at the jetty, sometimes, some at the harbor. This will be the first clean sweep they (the Army Corps of Engineers) have ever undertaken since the creation of the channel,” Mills said. “So, it is about 50 years in the making.”

Asked what the economic impact would be, Mills said: “Ultimately, it is going to be a major contribution to Willacy County because at the same time the navigation district has already determined that we are going to start with construction of some sea wall that was already there, do some repair work and we are hoping that by the time the channel is completely dredged that our sea wall will be in place and we can start receiving commercial traffic from day one.”

Mills also spoke about a couple of other projects he and Whitlock are working on. 

“We have a project Mr. Whitlock and I have been working on, through a relationship with the Mexican government as well as the concept of a public-private partnership to do an international maritime training facility that would much more easily be facilitated with a deeper channel. And, there are some other ideas that are being bounced around, some vessel service facilities, things of that nature.”

Mills pointed out that what used to be called the IntraCoastal Waterway is now known as Marine Highway 69. 

“Port Mansfield is off ramp to that. What do you have at an off ramp on an interstate? You have services. So, what we are trying to do is create some services that will draw customers who are transiting the coastal-way.”

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, Ron Whitlock, and U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez.

For years, Willacy County Navigation District was told “no” to having a full dredging operation performed. Simply put, the Corps of Engineers was never given enough money and Port Mansfield was not deemed a priority. Asked how things were turned around, Mills said:

“I think the biggest contribution was the persistence. Primarily, Mr. Whitlock visiting his contacts in Austin and actually going up with the Rio Grande Valley Partnership to D.C. and interacting with a lot of legislators, Cornyn’s office, Vela’s office, Cuellar’s office, and stressing the importance of the need, not just for Port Mansfield but Willacy County in general.”

Mills said he also had a lobbyist whose specialty was the Army Corps of Engineers.

“So, she did her portion. And my job was just to sit back and send out notes and visit as many politicians and Army Corps (officials) as I could. I believe those consolidated efforts drove everything that we needed to get somebody to finally jump. Can I say which one of those items flipped the switch? I would suspect it was a combination of all of them.”

Perhaps the most crucial part of the lobbying work, though, was conducted during the Valley Partnership’s and Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council’s “RGV to DC” trip in early June.

“I would say the biggest chunk (of the credit) would go to Mr. Whitlock and his last trip to D.C. because the money became available about 25 days after his last visit. Combine that with some conference calls to Congressman Vela and myself, and we were able to orchestrate,” Mills said. “I think all of those factors came together finally and we finally woke up enough people.”

The stars seemed to be aligned to get Port Mansfield the necessary funding for a fully-fledged dredging operation. Numerous federal and state agencies benefited from it, Mills explained.

“We tried several avenues, everything from a safe haven designation for Port Mansfield, saying that in an emergency, ships or vessels can come in to Port Mansfield. That could not be done with a shallow channel so it needed to be fixed. The Coast Guard supported the concept but legislatively, could not make the change. They were very vocal in their support of the program,” Mills said.

“We also went with the Padre Island National Seashore and the fact that the turtle rookery is gone. It does not exist on the last ten miles of the national park. And so they are looking for materials to rebuild their beaches to get their turtle rookeries again. Where is the material for their beaches going to come from? The Mansfield Cut. There are about 20 million tons of material that needs to be put somewhere and that is the goal.”

Mills said he and Whitlock also got National Marine Fisheries involved because the agency is having to deal with a super-high level of salination in the Laguna Madre. 

“Because the water could not move the salination level in the laguna was climbing,” Mills explained. “So, there was a lot of people who finally came forward and spoke of their concerns. We all had a vested interest in the same ultimate goal. I think all of that together finally flipped the switch and somebody paid attention.”

Mills said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s office also applied pressure. He said that as recently as June 5, Cornyn’s office was told the Corps of Engineers could not help Port Mansfield but could identify how much money would be needed to fully dredge the Mansfield Cut.

“Exactly 30 days later, on July 5, we were awarded a significant amount of money, which was larger than they told the senator (John Cornyn) they needed one month earlier. So, Senator Cornyn’s office helped jiggle the chain as well. They were saying, ‘What is wrong with Port Mansfield? Why are you not paying attention?’ The total appropriation was $608 million for 31 ports. We just happened to be one of the ports that finally made the list and we got the money.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn with public policy advocate Ron Whitlock.

Asked if the fact that the first casualty from Hurricane Harvey was a factor in the federal government finding money to dredge the ship channel, Mills said: “I suspect that definitely played a role particularly with the Coast Guard’s involvement, trying to back us and support us with the Corps. The last meeting we had was in Washington, D.C. Congressman Vela and a representative from Senator Cornyn’s office, two people from the Corps of Engineers’ headquarters, a Coast Guard captain from Coast Guard headquarters and myself and a person from the National Parks Service were all in this large meeting and that was the meeting where the Army Corps finally said, oh, by the way, we have money we are going to give you.”

As Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas coast in August 2017, a vessel ran aground at Port Mansfield. Its captain was trying to escape the storm but found the ship channel was too shallow. Mills pointed out that in another incident, a fisherman died after his fishing boat capsized in the ship channel.

“It was a shallow water issue because there was no way for the person to go down the middle of the channel as you are supposed to, the seas were too rough and he capsized, so there were a lot of factors that all came together and I think it was a big team effort.”

Asked to look into the future and predict how big the vessels might be that use Port Mansfield, Mills said:

Ron Whitlock at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

“If it is a 14 foot draught, which is what they are proposing, it will be barges and, you could probably bring in a small, 300 or 400 foot coastal container or tanker in there. From day one we are going to have, hopefully, 850 to 900 foot of sea wall waiting for them. That is more seawall than we need for any vessel.”

However, Mills said he is trying to get the Corps of Engineers to commit to a 16-foot draught. 

“With a 16-foot draught we could get ocean-going barges and tugs to come in the port. And bring in much more commodities, and make us a much more viable port, for things coming out of the Panama Canal and Mexico, such as Veracruz, places of that nature. I think if we could get a 16-foot draught it would be even better but I would live with a 14-foot draught and see what we can get.”

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Whitlock said that for the past five decades he has been a “Public Policy Advocate for the People” via the federal government’s requirement that “Radio and TV Licensees have a responsibility to serve the public.”

Whitlock came to prominence with exclusive Hurricane Beulah coverage on K-RIO 910 AM Radio in 1967. He said he is currently responsible for the Public Affairs commitments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for KSCC “K Sinclair Corpus Christi” FOX TV 38 and K-TOV TV 20. His shows can be followed on RonWhitlockReports.com and Televisa’s “El Canal del Vale (RGV).

Editor’s Note: The above story is the first in a two-part series about new funding for Port Mansfield. In Part Two, which will be published on Friday, Aug. 30, the Rio Grande Guardian will look at the sort of commercial activities the port could get involved in once the ship channel is fully dredged.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Congressman
Filemon Vela, Ronald Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District, Ron Whitlock of The Shepherd Group, Ana Garcia, district director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, and Col. Larz Zetterstrom, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston.