Hope for a Neglected Harbor... Dredge Arrives in Port Mansfield

The harbor at Port Mansfield may soon be open to normal boat traffic if a dredge brought in recently by the Willacy County Navigation District is able to accomplish what is expected of it, but the cost is staggering.

The rebuilt 1960's model dredge is being rented by the Navigation District from a Nashville, Tennessee Company, Dredge and Marine Corporation, for four months at $32,000 per month, according to Port Director, Mike Wilson. The Navigation District is renting the dredge with an option to buy. Total cost of the dredge, a support boat and 4,000 feet of pipe will run approximately $375,000.

The Mansfield Pass at the jetties, the connecting Intracoastal Waterway and the harbor mouth have not been dredged in eight years due to budget constraints with the Army Corps of Engineers. The pass has sanded in and several boats have been damaged while making the perilous run thru the jetties. "It has been dangerous for quite some time," said Mike Wilson, Port Director. "If your boat is a size that drafts six or seven feet then there could be a real problem unless it is just a flat, calm day with a high tide, and it is not getting any better."

There is another shallow area just east of the intersection of the Intracoastal with the Mansfield Pass where the depth drops to approximately six feet, but the most critically silted in area is at the harbor mouth. "I think it is two and a half to three feet right here at the mouth of the harbor where it is normally 14 to 16 feet," Wilson said. Shallow running bay boats or scooters can still carefully navigate the harbor, but larger offshore craft have had to seek port elsewhere.

The small fishing community of Port Mansfield, east of Raymondville in Willacy County, is nestled on the shore of the Laguna Madre. The village of some 350 residents relies almost exclusively on bay and offshore fishing, with recreational anglers coming from throughout the state. Since the construction of the Mansfield Pass in the early 1960's, anglers have had reliable access to the Gulf of Mexico and fabulous offshore fishing. That way of life is now threatened as the pass becomes silted in.

The Mansfield Pass, which has not been dredged since 1999, is a federally mandated waterway and falls under the jurisdiction of the United States Army Corps of Engineers to maintain. In the past, when money was available, the Corps typically dredged every third or fourth year. However, the reduced budget the Corps now operates with is allocated to ports that have a high degree of commercial traffic and a large amount of tonnage.

Port Mansfield has no commercial tonnage and is at the bottom of the list for dredging priorities. "It is not just Port Mansfield, there are over 600 shallow draft ports across the country that are off the dredging schedule," Wilson said. Several other small communities along the Texas coast, such as Bay City, Palacios and Aransas Pass are suffering as their channels become impassable.

"The District has made every effort to secure a way to keep Port Mansfield viable and open, and the board took action several months ago to rent a dredge," Wilson said. The 40 year old dredge has been refurbished and arrived in Port two weeks ago. After overcoming several mechanical problems, as of this writing, the dredge is up and running and work has begun.

"The contract that we have with Dredge and Marine Corporation is for a four month lease at $32,000 a month, so we are committed to pay that, then we can apply 80 percent of that figure toward the purchase of the dredge and it is $295,000, which will leave us about $200,000 left if we want to buy it."

The plan, according to Wilson, is to have local men learn how to operate the dredge, and they are learning from a crew of three Tennesseans led by James Morris. "We can offer them as good a machine as a new one for a considerable amount of savings," Morris said. "A new one like this is getting up right at a million bucks. We try and go thru everything on here and put on as much new stuff as we can. That way she is just like a brand new one."

In 2005 Morris's company sold a refurbished barge to the city of Mexico Beach in Florida. "We did the Mexico City Beach one in Florida," Morris said. "They had the same problem, the Corps wouldn't come do it, and we set them up with a dredge, pipeline the whole package to get them going."

According to Mexico Beach City Administrator, Chris Hubbard, the city council now has serious reservations about their purchase of the used dredge which is a refurbished 1980's model. "Now, the council wishes they had bought a new dredge," Hubbard said. "Anytime you buy something that old the maintenance is unbelievable." He explained that the city is so disappointed with the performance of the 20 some year old dredge that they are seeking bids to have a new one built."

Whether or not the Florida city's experience with their used dredge bodes ill for Port Mansfield's dredge, which is twice as old, remains to be seen. "There is a warranty, but we will probably be required to fix much of what goes wrong after a period of four to six months," Wilson said.

Rental, purchase and maintenance are only the initial costs involved. "The company estimates that we will burn 30 to 40 gallons of diesel an hour so we may use 400 gallons a day," Wilson said. Fuel consumption alone will likely exceed $800 per day and then there is the added cost of paying a crew.

Wilson expects the dredge to pump out between 300 and 400 cubic yards per hour to a nearby spoil containment area. "We are hoping that we can do between 200 and 300 thousand cubic yards over the next four months, that's what we would like to try and get out of the channel. Now, that won't' be all of it. There is probably a million cubic yards in the channel between here and the jetties. We are hoping that we can get it done for $350,000 to $400,000 for that four month period. We may miss that, but that is what our goal is."

However, it is unlikely that this small dredge will be able to handle the sanding in at the jetties. "There might be a way we could work at the jetties if we can prove we can do it here in the bay, but we would certainly have to pick our days out there. We couldn't do it if there were hardly any swells."

Wilson said the Navigation District is relying on a $225,000 grant from Texas Parks and Wildlife to help defray the cost and are hoping to receive additional funds from the federal Coastal Impact Assistance Program. Additional monies may come from increases in lease rates by the Navigation District and a potential harbor use fee.

Port Mansfield Chamber of Commerce President. Terry Neal, sums up the feelings of many residents. "The Navigation District is taking on a gigantic task that has historically been done by our government, and Mike and the board should be commended for their efforts in trying to keep the port open and the economy going."

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore