Port Mansfield is a shallow water port.  This depth makes sense since, despite being connected to the Intracoastal Waterway, the port lies along the Laguna Madre which has an average depth of about four and a half feet.  The Navigation District should not be the only ones concerned about the future dredging of the harbor and the cut.  Over time, as more silt, sand, and debris enter the area, the harbor entrance will eventually fill in causing multiple consequences to the navigation district, tourists, and residents alike.  Local mariners forget that as recently as 2020 the entrance channel was shoaled to a point that outboard engines were stirring up mud as they idled out of the harbor.  The biodiversity of the waterway would be adversely affected, seagrass could shift to block established boating routes, and the population's access to the waterway and the Gulf would be eliminated.To avoid the above problems, Port Mansfield has historically been dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers every few years.  Having the Corp appear and do tens of millions of dollars’ worth of work then disappearing for a few years has always been a fact of life for Port Mansfield. Or it was, until now.

The Situation

Those practices were suspended in 2008 due to in house Army Corp policy changes that were implemented nationwide.  Port Mansfield had originally been founded with the intention of it being a commercial port and the job description for the Port Director Ron Mills specifically states that the applicant must develop commercial activities. Despite having a legislative mandate for a commercial port, the Navigation District historically did little to add commercial development at the port and subsisted on the rest of Willacy County paying taxes and the Corps of Engineers policy of coming bi-annually at no cost.  In recent years, due to the Army Corp of Engineers policy changes and the WCND board making required adjustments, efforts have turned towards searching for and communicating with commercial entities who are interested in operating out of the port.With the policy changes the Corp of Engineers has an extreme lack of interest in providing Port Mansfield support due to its apparent lack of return on their investments and the increasing amount of effort being put into its upkeep. It has reached the point where the Corps of Engineers in a meeting in Port Mansfield in February 2021 stated “that they will not return to dredge the port ever again without some form of commercial development as proof of the port’s value”. Their claim has been repeatedly presented to the WCND as a fact, but when the Navigation District received a FOIA request to prove it, they were unable to obtain documentation from the Corp to prove the policy’s existence.Calls to other Port Executives at shallow water ports along the Texas coast all assured that they too had been informed of the mandate but that they were also never given proof. The search for a definitive answer became so convoluted that even a message from Senator Cornyn’s Chief of Staff was unable to help in obtaining information from the Corps. It was not until just over a week ago, after a multiagency meeting in Galveston, that the port was able to obtain the information that it was looking for.

The Proof

The Navigation District now has the updated wording that shows how Port Mansfield will be placed at the bottom of the list of projects if it is even considered at all.  Below are a sample of the requirements that the Corp of Engineers must consider before offering dredging services:

“The economic benefits that will accrue for the dollars spent to improve the level of performance must be considered before the O&M work package is included in the budget. An informed judgment must be made to determine the economic impact of the work, and where possible must make verifiable use of existing performance data, including project benefits and risks to the delivery of those benefits. Work with a higher return on investment (in terms of benefits delivered or performance) will receive a higher priority in the budget process. For example, the evaluation for commercial navigation includes the current and five-year average cargo tonnage (coastal) and cargo ton-miles(inland waterways), cost per ton and cost per ton-miles, as well as other factors including harbors with U. S. Coast Guard Marine Safety operations, critical harbors of refuge and subsistence harbors.” - FY26 Civil Works Directorate PDG“The purpose of this effort is to develop a risk-informed, performance-based budget for carrying out the national Navigation mission. USACE's Civil Works budget is discretionary and subject to funding constraints nationwide. Therefore, USACE focuses on those projects that have the greatest risk of failure and that provide the greatest economic, environmental, and public safety returns to the Nation. Navigation projects have traditionally been categorized as high, moderate, and low commercial use. The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) 2014 introduced the term “emerging harbor project”. An emerging harbor project and a low commercial use harbor project are equivalent for projects eligible for funds from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund (HMTF). Funding is focused on those projects with a high or moderate level of commercial navigation use that move 99 percent of the nation’s waterborne commercial cargo…Low commercial use is defined as coastal projects with less than 1 million tons of commerce annually and inland projects with less than 1 billion ton-miles of traffic annually. Consideration is also given to the condition of the project and use by U.S. Coast Guard, national security, and military readiness agencies. However, with few exceptions, even these projects do not receive sufficient funds to maintain constructed channel dimensions.” - FY26 PDM – Mission Objective“In the current funding environment, work must be prioritized among many worthwhile investment opportunities and ongoing maintenance needs across the entire spectrum of projects. This means concentrating on available resources on the highest priority projects in terms of reducing risk and providing optimal reliability to maximize benefits. The Navigation program is directing funds primarily to those channels, harbors, and waterways systems and segments that provide the highest return from commercial navigation.” – FY26 PDM – Performance Measures

So where does all of that leave Port Mansfield, a low-commercial coastal project which provides beautiful views and good fishing but practically nothing else to the regional economy? From what the board was told in the past and has just recently confirmed again, it means that the port will potentially never be dredged again.Some may feel that the concern is unwarranted since, as mentioned before, the Corps always shows up when it is needed the most. Except, that cycle had already been broken several years back when the Corps of Engineers had no intention of dredging the port at all.

The Timeline

  • July 2018 – WCND contractor Shepard's Group works with Rep Cuellar, Vela and Senator Cornyn and acquires Congressional Emergency Funding naming Port Mansfield as a recipient of $17 million dollars.
  • Spring 2019 – Army Corps of Engineers HQ Washington strips Port Mansfield of all Congressional funds and transfers them to the Mississippi River Flood Program with no mention of ever returning or replacing the funds. The port now has no way to be dredged into the foreseeable future.
  • Spring 2020 – WNCD advises Shepards Group to work again with Representative Cuellar and Senator Cornyn and was able to have $25 million in Congressional Emergency Funding redirected to dredge Port Mansfield.
  • 2021 to 2022 –The channel to 17 feet and the jetties to 23ft using the emergency funding with no additional funds from the Corps of Engineers.
  • February 2021 - Col. Vail and Gen. Beck toured site of project and advised the Director, Chairman and Board Member that the port was in jeopardy of losing future funding due to a lack of return on the money invested. They understood that the port would not be able to develop its new infrastructure overnight and that it would allow approximately two years to show proof of development in the form of contractual commitments for services.
  • January 2023 – Port Mansfield informs the Corps that the jetties had shoaled to 11 feet. Corps advised that they would survey.
  • April 2023 – Advised by Project Manager Seth Jones that the port had $5 million in funding left and that the dredge would be sent over once the yard period was over. (Never arrived)
  • Fall 2023 – Texas General Land Office and Corps Environmental teams with Port Director and Stantec Engineering have a meeting where Port Mansfield is informed funding stands at $3.3 million. Despite this, they also inform the WCND that for the jetty clearing project to continue, the cost will be $5 million every 18 months or $10 million every three years, not accounting for inflation.
  • December 2023 – The WCND receives notice that two TGLO CERPA projects were approved. These projects aim to use dredging material pulled from the Mansfield Cut to combat erosion on the National Seashore and create areas for sea turtles to lay their eggs.
  • December 2023 – Port Mansfield signs an agreement with Marine Terminal Operator, North American Standards to operate a queueing yard with the provision that they spend $3.5 million on bulkhead/seawall improvements.
  • February 2024 – In a conversation with current Galveston Commanding Officer, Colonel Blackmon in Fort Worth, Ron Mills was advised that the Port remained in a “chicken or the egg” situation where it would not get funding for dredging to improve commercial development but could not get commercial development without funding for dredging. The Corps had also, apparently, moved more funds away from Port Mansfield leaving any future projects with $2.4 million.
  • February 2024 – The WCND receives a FOIA request for proof verifying that the Corps was indeed going to stop further dredging. Despite verbal confirmations, no written reply is ever sent. A direct request from Sen. Cornyn is also unable to produce a written statement.
  • February 2024 – Ron Mills meets with TGLO and the Corps of Engineers to speak on the projects and demand evidence for what he and every other port executive in the region had been told.
  • March 2024 – Ron Mills advised Shepards Group to again start process to seek Congressional Emergency Funding from Rep. Gonzalez, Cuellar and Senator Cornyn if in the era of earmarks such a process still remains.
  • March 2024 – After several more emails and phone calls, the Corps finally sends an email quoting the new guidelines which would directly impact Port Mansfield funding status.

The Options

The Willacy County Navigation District has been moving forward with commercial development to meet the two-year deadline set by Colonel Vail and General Beck. Bringing in commercial entities and moving a relatively small amount of cargo through the port seems to be the best option to provide value to the Corps as well as for the overwhelming majority of tax payers across Willacy County.  Those taxpayers have paid many millions in taxes for the last 75 years without any economic benefit in return. Beyond those reasons, if the Navigation District wants to continue functioning as a harbor, it must be dredged; meaning that the funds must come from somewhere. That point leads us to the two primary choices for the WCND to pursue and consider its impact on its lessees.* Note: A project cycle is approximately every 3 years with an estimated cost of $16 million USD as of March 2024 based upon Operations and Maintenance report provided to the White House for consideration.

Option A

Marine Terminal Operator – is brought in and begins moving cargo through the port.

This method would put the WCND short for the one cycle but have the port having extra funds every cycle after that. Extra funds can be used to improve infrastructure or implement sustainable systems within the port.  The hope is that once commercial vessels begin transmitting the channel once or twice a week that their activity will slow any shoaling and dredging timeline will be increased and volumes will be reduced, saving many millions in dredging costs.

Option B

No external commercial development is brought into Port Mansfield. Dredging must still be completed either way so funding must come from somewhere and is unlikely to be from the Corps or other agencies since the port will not be providing a return on investment.* Note: These calculations have been made in March of 2024. A cost of $16 million per cycle comes out to $5,333,333.34 in revenue needed per year. Without external funding, this money must now come from within Port Mansfield.$5,333,333.34 / 743 existing leases = $7,178.11.To meet the dredging cost, each lease in town would have its lease payment increased by $7,178.11, not including current lease fees, county taxes or annual rate corrections to account for inflation.The Board understands that neither of these options are ideal but firmly believe that the third option –

Option C

“Allowing the harbor and channel to shoal in” – is simply not an option that can be legally or morally allowed. Whether someone is interested in Port Mansfield for its fishing or its economic potential, nobody will be able to prosper if it is allowed to disappear, forgotten by the Corps of Engineers as their mandate authorizes or by the local lessees due to their lack of interest in paying additional funds to keep their ideal environment.