SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, RGV – It is not just Port Mansfield that would benefit if its ship channel was dredged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – South Padre Island would be helped greatly as well.

There are parts of SPI where beach erosion reaches 15 feet a year. The sediment the Army Corps could dredge at Port Mansfield would be ideal to nourish South Padre’s beaches, experts say.

“There are portions of South Padre Island beaches where the erosion rates reach 15 feet per year,” said Brandon Hill, Shoreline Department Director for South Padre Island. “About 50 percent of the City of South Padre Island’s beaches are what we would consider stable, meaning we are not in danger of losing significant portions of the beach. But, there is a percentage of the beach that is eroding, anywhere from three to five feet a year, all the way up, on the most northern reaches, to 15 feet.”

Hill has visited the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offices in Galveston to make sure South Padre Island is “on their radar.” He said dredged material from Port Mansfield would be most welcome at SPI.

Brandon and Haylee Hill

“So, when you have someone in your region saying, I have millions of cubic yards of sand and silt that needs to be dredged and placed somewhere, it is in your best interest to pursue that. So, yes, of course, we are interested and we would be pursuing any option to bring that sediment to our shore.”

Hill said SPI has a long standing BUDM (Beneficial Use of Dredged Material) program that has allowed for the Island to stay as beautiful and pristine as it is. “Anything we can do on top of that just serves to further fortify our shoreline and our dune system, which is ultimately the only storm surge and sea-level rise protection our island has.”

SPI City Councilman Paul Munarriz said he appreciates the work Hill is doing. Munarriz said it would be a win-win for Port Mansfield and SPI if the Corps of Engineers would dredge the port’s ship channel and deposit off South Padre.

“We need to bring back fishermen and the vessel traffic at Port Mansfield. Our sports fishing has really gone to nothing. Our port is dependent on fishing and sports fishing in particular,” Munarriz said. “Also, because the ship channel has not been dredged for a while, it has stopped providing shelter for marine traffic, as happened with the Gulf Justice, a 200-foot vessel that ran aground and came up against the SPI beach jetty during Hurricane Harvey.”

Munarriz, who has been a fishing guide in Port Mansfield, Laguna Madre and South Padre Island for over 27 years, said the accident would not have happened had the ship channel been dredged.

“The captain (of Gulf Justice) was consulting the Coast Guard Pilot register and it showed Port Mansfield as an active port and they could go in and take shelter during the storm. They came to find out, yes, it is a port but there is no way to access it because the channel has filled in over the years. Now it is impacting the national seashore on the north side of the jetties. That beach has eroded and that is because of the fact that the Cut has been filling with the sand that supposedly should be migrating north.

Paul Munarriz
Captain Paul Munarriz

Munarriz said the natural circulation of the tide at Port Mansfield has been just about reduced to nothing. “The only source of Gulf water is through the Brazos de Santiago Pass. Before we had a loop, with tides moving and carrying the fish and everything that goes with it. Now, you have stopped one of the main sources of that circulation of water. We need to open that gateway again.”

Munarriz said if the Army Corps does dredge Port Mansfield, the sand and silt need not be deposited on South Padre Island’s beach itself. “It can be deposited on what is called an inshore berm. It will eventually be carried onto the beach, by the wave action.”

Munarriz praised Hill for “working very diligently” with the Army Corps of Engineers to “get them interested in funding.” He said if the Corps does not have the funding, the dredging cannot happen. For this reason, he said he supports the efforts of Gov. Greg Abbott, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela to secure FEMA funding for the Corps of Engineers. “We can use any help we can get,” Munarriz said.

Ron Whitlock Reports interviewed SPI’s Hill while he was attending the recent American Shore and Beach Preservation Association 2017 National Conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“It is actually one of the things I am here talking about at this national conference, the work that is ongoing at South Padre Island. The name of our talk was policy-driven regional erosion management. Just talking about how we are using scientifically-based approaches and policies to help preserve the Island the best that we can.”

Hill said he was learning a “tremendous amount” at the conference.

“It is made up primarily of geologists and coastal engineers. There are more and more of us management folks that are bridging the gap between the science and the application of that research. And so, it is always a great place to come and make sure we are managing our island with the most cutting-edge information. It is also a great place for us to be showcasing all of the great work the City of South Padre Island is doing right now. It has been a great conference.”

Hill said that ideally, the City of South Padre Island receives a beach nourishment project every couple of years. He said the last few projects have allowed the City to have an annual nourishment. “It has worked out very well but due to the lack of shoaling in the Port Brownsville entrance channel, which is historically where we have been getting the vast majority of our sediment, we did not have the sand there to dredge. Which is all the more reason why we must pursue alternative sources of sediment, such as the cut we are talking about.”

At the time of the interview, Hill was about to visit the Army Corps of Engineers in Galveston.

“It is part of an ongoing effort by our department to keep South Padre on the forefront of the Army Corps’ radar. Communities near oil plants, such as Galveston, can justify big expenditures on infrastructure because a lot of U.S. oil refining goes on there. They have that card to play, the need for their nourishment,” Hill said.

“The City of South Padre Island has to work much harder to make sure that anytime there is a dredging meeting, or a beneficial use of dredged material project, we are actively engaged with the Army Corps to ensure that we are getting the nourishment we require.”

Hill said that since becoming director of SPI’s shoreline department, he has taken an active role in pursuing the Army Corps’ interest in the BUDM on the Island.

“For the first time in our history we have a five-year nourishment plan that has been adopted by the City Council and the reason we did that was upon hitting my stride here with the city, I called a meeting with multiple Army Corps officers and sat with them for several hours and discussed what the City can do to ensure we are positioning ourselves as well as possible for future nourishments,” Hill said.

“And one of the recommendations that came from the Army Corps at that meeting was that if we had an adopted plan that said, when sediment is available, this is where you should place it and here’s why, it would help. They would see that as more than just the financial dedication of the city. They would see we are maximizing their expenditures. Dredging can cost a lot of money. It is a cost-share endeavor between the Army Corps of Engineers and the General Land Office and the City of South Padre Island. They want to know that we are not only financially on board but actively engaged in the process.”

Hill has a background in coastal sciences and the management of resources.

“That background affords me the ability to write up a scientifically-backed management plan and be able to bridge the gap between what the coastal engineers and the researchers would suggest we do and the policy that it takes to make that happen,” Hill said. “This meeting with the Army Corps is another opportunity to make sure not only that SPI is at the forefront of everybody’s mind but also that we position ourselves with the newest information from the Army Corps. So, if they come out with recommendations while we are in this meeting, we will be able to come straight back to the city and implement anything we have to do to ensure we are in the bet position possible to receive as much sand as we can.”

Hill concluded the interview with the Rio Grande Guardian by pointing out the dual benefits of beach nourishment programs.

“I believe South Padre is the largest economic driver for Cameron County. But it is also the first line of defense for the County when it comes to a large storm surge. From a coastal systems perspective, which is my background, a barrier island is ultimately the first line of protection for the mainland so a properly managed barrier island serves not only as a resource for those that live and visit but also serves as protection for the residents, the visitors and everyone who lives inland as well.”