MISSION, RGV – The biggest challenge facing sea ports in the Rio Grande Valley is lack of funding for maintenance dredging, members of Congress have been told.

Eddie Campirano, port director for the Port of Brownsville, said his port, Port Isabel, the Port of Harlingen, and Port Mansfield are all suffering. However, he suggested Port Mansfield may be in the worst position of all. Campirano made his comments at a transportation fact-finding meeting hosted by Congressmen Blake Farenthold, Henry Cuellar, and Roger Williams.

“Port Mansfield is in dire straits,” Campirano told the congressman, at a meeting held at the Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce offices. “The main channel into Port Mansfield has shoaled up to the point that it has become impassible. The 12 foot channel has a current depth of less than five feet.”

Campirano pointed out that Port Mansfield had no financial allocation for maintenance dredging for Fiscal Year 2014 and no funds are obligated for Fiscal Year 2015. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) capability for Fiscal Year 2015 is $5.3 million, Campirano told the congressmen.

Campirano pointed out that maintenance dredging of the Lower Laguna Madre section of the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway (GIWW) from Corpus Christi to Port Isabel has steadily decreased. In 2009, $10.5 million was contracted for the removal of 2.5 million cubic yards of material from the lower section of the GIWW. In 2011, $6.25 million was contracted to remove 2.6 million cubic yards. In 2014, $5.2 million was contracted to remove just over one million cubic yards.

“This only allows USACE to resort to ‘hot spot’ dredging and never dredge out the entire channel,” Campirano told the congressmen. “This leads to more frequent dredging cycles. The USACE estimates that at any one time, there is on average eight to ten million cubic yards available to be dredged from Corpus Christi to Port Isabel.”

Ronald Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District, says a lack of maintenance dredging at Port Mansfield is impacting homeland security.
Ronald Mills, port director for Willacy County Navigation District, says a lack of maintenance dredging at Port Mansfield is impacting homeland security.

Campirano’s comments on the seriousness of the situation for Port Mansfield were echoed by Ronald Mills in a recent interview with the Guardian. Mills is the new port director for Willacy County Navigation District. He spoke to the Guardian following a meeting of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, where he serves on the board.

“The only boats that can get into Port Mansfield right now are the small fishing boats. What we need to do is get the channel back to a manageable level so that we can get sail boats back in, charter boats back in, head boats that actually bring revenue into the port,” Mills said. “After that we can consider bringing in commercial traffic, barges, something that can actually generate revenue for the town and the county because the biggest part of our tax base is the county.”

Mills said the main channel leading into Port Mansfield has not been dredged since 2011. “Right now, I am going to guess, we are sitting at about six feet whereas it used to be at 12 feet. Most sail boats cannot get in there anymore, the larger ones, anyway.”

Mills said the lack of maintenance dredging has hurt Port Mansfield’s annual fishing tournament.

“Annually we have a fishing tournament. It has been going 30-plus years. People will pay to be in a tournament and we will get that revenue. But the idea of a fishing tournament is that people buy their fuel there, they get their fishing gear there, they stay in the hotels. Well, all that is going to South Padre Island or Port Isabel. All the potential revenue that Port Mansfield would have is going to someplace else,” Mills said.

Asked why that was, Mills said: “Because the boats cannot get into our port. Since they cannot come in to drop off their catches, they register with us, they get credit for the fish, they run out and do the tournament, but all the points and everything else that counts in the system goes somewhere else.”

Mills said almost all the problems at Port Mansfield can be laid at the door of federal funding, or lack thereof.

“The fundamental bottom line is we need dollars. In the past, before 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, every time it dredged out the Intercoastal Waterway, would take a few days, go in, clean our channel and move on. In 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers changed all of its funding and ports like Orange, Texas, and Port Mansfield, that are not major commercial ports were cut out. So, the Army Corps no longer services us,” Mills said.

“In the past, it was no problem. The main channel got dredged regularly by the government. Now, we have to do it ourselves. And, unfortunately, the amount of money involved is a significant amount and there is no way to adjust the tax base to cover a job that used to be done by the federal government.”

Asked how much it would cost to dredge the main channel at Port Mansfield, Mills said: “Conservatively, it would cost about $1.8 million up to $3 million. Ideally, we would dredge it to the right level and then every year someone would come in and do maintenance on it. So, it would probably cost about $500,000 a year, perhaps a little less than that, for someone to come in and routinely maintain it, just to keep it at a standard depth. It is going to take a significant amount of money to get it to where we need it – back to where it was originally, in 2008 or 2010. We are tax raising district but we cannot raise that amount of money.”

Mills said it would be” nice” to find a state agency that has an interest in seeing Port Mansfield, such as Texas Parks & Wildlife or DPS, helping to pay for the maintenance dredging.

“You have a lot of state and federal agencies that use our facility to launch their vessels, use it for counter-narcotics, a lot of purposes. The game wardens can still use it because their boats are shallow but the Coast Guard people, the federal agencies, their boats probably cannot get into Mansfield much because there is not enough water left. They have a vested interest in us having the depth.”

Asked if a failure to dredge the main channel at Port Mansfield is, ultimately, going to hurt border security, Mills answered affirmatively.

“I used to work out of the Coast Guard base on South Padre Island and we would run people in and out of Mansfield. It is definitely a major homeland security issue. In addition to that, Port Mansfield is officially, according to the federal government and the Coast Guard and others, listed as a safe haven. That means if there is a hurricane coming to South Padre Island or Port Isabel the people have to go somewhere. Well, when they evacuate, where do they go? Mansfield. If they are up north and they have to evacuate Corpus, where do they go? Port Mansfield. Well, guess what? You cannot get into Mansfield anymore because the water is too shallow. They are going to have to go back out to sea or go north up the Intercoastal Waterway to Corpus and hope they make it before the storm hits. Most boats do not go fast enough to get away. So, we are going to have a problem.”

Mills said he is trying to find people who have a vested issue in Port Mansfield’s problem.

“It is a homeland security issue. I have a safe haven issue. I have an economic development issue because I cannot grow the town and get some cash flowing into the economy because no one can come in and spend their money. So, all the way around we have a negative issue caused by this shallow water out front. It truly controls the future of the town and our ability to get it back to where it used to be.”