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Brownsville Ship Channel
25 57'45"N 97 21'45"W

The Port of Brownsville is an ideal location for ship recycling for many reasons. The Port is located 17 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, and the Brownsville Ship Channel is just three miles from the Mexico border. It is a man-made ship channel cut in from the Gulf of Mexico in 1934 has a 40-foot draft at mean low tide. Texas' Intracoastal Waterway system extends 426 miles from Sabine Pass to the mouth of the Brownsville Ship Channel at Port Isabel.

No other ports outside of Brownsville - not yards in Virginia or Baltimore or Alabama - have received more ship-disposal contracts in the past four years from the U.S. Maritime Administration. The Port is strategically located to provide scrap material to numerous mills in northern Mexico and the southern United States. It is serviced by all major modes of transportation. Brownsville also has a favorable climate for year round operations. Finally, and most important, Brownsville is blessed with an experienced, energetic, fully trained and competitively priced labor force.

A less charitable perspective on this dusty, dingy corner of South Texas sees a near-perfect place to carry on a dirty job like shipbreaking. This area along the Rio Grande River has the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line of any American metropolitan area. Residents have contended in recent years with tick-borne fever, a high concentration of babies born with malformed brains and killer bees. It is one of the few places in the United States where leprosy has not been stamped out.

Today, various industries flank the Brownsville Ship Channel. One of particular interest to the energy situation is a company building offshore oil drilling rigs. These gargantuan structures draw 25 feet of water and present an imposing sight along the channel before they are towed to their distant destinations in the North Sea. Another interesting operation on the channel are conducted by shipbreaking companies.

In 2004 a Ships to Reefs partnership was proposed as a joint effort of private businesses, the Port of Brownsville, the Navy, and the Texas Parks & Wildlife. Other participants could include the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College and Texas State Technical College. The program would train and employ local workers to convert old Navy ships into artificial reefs. Proponents claimed that the initiative would benefit four local shipbreaking companies and the Rio Grande Valley tourism industry.

Proponents estimated that, in addition to workers already employed at the four companies, 400 more people could find jobs as metal cutters and another 500 would be needed for environmental aspects, such as removing oil, asbestos and other pollutants from ships.

If the Ships to Reefs program came to Brownsville, the work would be different from shipbreaking. Shipbreaking is cutting ships into small pieces. Ships to Reefs would require cleaning the ship environmentally and then sinking it.

In addition to providing jobs at the Port of Brownsville, tourism would get a boost from an increase in scuba divers who would want to dive down to the sunken ships and the coral reefs that would eventually grow on them. Offshore deep sea fishing industry would greatly increase because reefs would cause an increase in fish that would be attracted to sunken ships and old reefs and to the larger gamefish that would be attracted by the abundance of prey.

On a July day in the year 1523, the bay at the southernmost pass along the future Texas Coast received the lilting denomination "Brazos de San Iago" (Arms of Saint James). Fittingly named for the patron saint of warriors. Brazos Santiago, as it came to be called, has been host to a tumultuous history, uniquely shaped by its proximity to the Mexican border. The narrative of this harbor and the region it serves has been liberally enriched by those elements that make for romantic and fascinating retelling.

Across the pages of the Lower Rio Grande Valley history march legendary heroes of war and revolution, giants of the frontier and ranching industry, audacious outlaws and sordid profiteers; their exploits are set against a background of shifting allegiances, economic and political power struggles, smuggling and illegal enterprises, international intrigues, and hotheaded uprisings followed by vindictive reprisals. The arduous development of this vicinity suffered many setbacks from the unstable scene along the border, undoubtedly delaying the arrival of sound and Legitimate commercial well-being.

The history of the Texas Coast reveals a pattern that characterized the growth of each major port. First documented in the surveys of 1853, prevailing conditions consisted of bars blocking potentially navigable passes, erosion of the heads of the southern islands at the passes, and corresponding southward shifts in channel locations. Local interests attempted modest and isolated corrective measures after the Civil War, followed by the army engineers, who conducted examinations and surveys in the 1870s and a far-flung program of initial improvements in the early 1880s. After five or six years, most of these withered as it became painfully clear that government resources were spread too thin.

After 1889, when Galveston was named beneficiary of the concentrated efforts of the government to furnish a port for the "Trans-Mississippi West," a short-lived era of private activity dominated the Texas Coast . Harbor and channel companies were chartered under state law to undertake deep-water channel improvements. Some of these works proved overly ambitious and, for the most part, ruinously expensive for the corporations that sponsored them. Before the turn of the century, most private works had been turned over to the government.

In 1928 Brownsville interests sought a direct channel from the pass to terminate at a turning basin 4 miles from the City. The job of dredging the new channel to Brownsville and its 1,000-by-1,300-foot turning basin was begun December 20, 1934 and completed February 21, 1936. Located at Port Isabel since 1928, the army engineers field office moved to downtown Brownsville shortly after the Brownsville Ship Channel opened.

The years since 1936 have seen progressive deepening of the channels to the present depth of 36 feet . Interior channels have been widened and both turning basins have been enlarged and extended. By 1946, an additional channel at the junction of the Brownsville and Port Isabel channels was authorized to facilitate movement of vessels between the two ports and to relieve congestion. A three-basin shallow-draft fishing harbor extending north from the Brownsville Ship Channel has been added to the maintenance responsibilities of the Galveston District.

The Gulf Intracoastal Water Way [GIWW] is a coastal canal from Brownsville, Texas, to the Okeechobee waterway at Fort Myers, Florida. The Texas portion of the canal system extends 426 mi (685 km), from Sabine Pass to the mouth of the Brownsville Ship Channel at Port Isabel. The GIWW is part of a national system of waterways that extends along the US coast. It originated in the federal 1873 Rivers and Harbors Act that called for detailed surveys of the Texas coast. Construction of the GIWW began in 1905 when canals were dredged to a depth of 5 ft (1.5 m) and a width of 40 ft (12 m) along some parts of the Gulf Coast. By 1909, the GIWW extended from Corpus Christi to Aransas Pass, from Aransas Pass to Pass Cavallo and from the Brazos River to West Galveston Bay. In 1934, the GIWW was extended from Galveston Bay to the Sabine River. Finally, in 1949, the last reach of the waterway was completed from Corpus Christi to Brownsville, thus forming a continuous waterway from Apalachee Bay, Florida, to the Mexican border. By 1961, nearly 90 tributaries had been incorporated into the GIWW system, more than half of these in Texas and Louisiana.

Brazos Santiago Pass (Brazos Santiago - Arms of Saint James), the approach to Port Isabel and Port Brownsville, is a narrow pass from the Gulf to the lower end of Laguna Madre, between the S end of Padre Island and the N end of Brazos Island. It lies 236 miles SSW from Galveston entrance, 106 miles S from Aransas Pass, and 6 miles N from the mouth of the Rio Grande.

The pass has been improved by the construction of two rubble mound jetties extending nearly 1 mile into the Gulf and by dredging a channel between them from deep water in the Gulf. Federal project depths are 42 feet through Brazos Santiago Pass and across Laguna Madre to the junction of the channels leading to Port Brownsville and Port Isabel, 36 feet to Port Isabel turning basin, and 42 feet from the junction to the Brownsville Turning Basin.

The entrance is marked by a lighted whistle buoy about 2 miles E of the jetties, a lighted 26930' entrance range, a lighted bell buoy off the submerged part of the N jetty, and a lighted gong buoy off the end of the S jetty. The channels are marked by lighted ranges, lights, a daybeacon, and lighted buoys. In the 16-mile channel to Brownsville Turning Basin. Boca Chica Passing Basin is 7 miles and Goose Island Passing Basin 11.3 miles above the outer end of the entrance jetties.

The diurnal range of tide is 1.4 feet at Brazos Santiago Pass and Port Isabel. Tidal currents of 6 knots were reported in the vicinity of Brazos Santiago Pass and Port Isabel which may cause strong cross currents on the Intracoastal Waterway at about Mile 665.1W, especially with a flood tide and strong SE winds. Caution is advised for large vessels transiting between Port Isabel and Long Island.

The climate of Brownsville is partly manmade. The prevailing winds of the area are from the Gulf of Mexico, but do not produce a truly marine climate. The region could be classified as semiarid because of the lack of rainfall, the result of the low elevation of the area which fails to give the air from the Gulf sufficient lift to cause condensation and of the considerable subsidence of the winds aloft due to the presence of mountains starting about 100 miles to the W. The manmade, and most important, climatic factor of this region is the irrigation that has changed the entire lower Rio Grande Valley into a semitropical area.

The normal annual rainfall of about 26 inches is poorly distributed, with maxima in June, September, and October. Most of the precipitation comes in the form of thunderstorm activity, and often a single thunderstorm will account for the entire month's rainfall. Some extreme rainfalls have occurred when hurricanes were in the vicinity. However, the frequency of hurricanes in this area is very small, and the general path is a N and S one just off the coast in the Gulf. Since 1950 only eight tropical systems have approached Brownsville. Perhaps the most noteworthy were Beulah in September 1967 and Allen in August 1980. Beulah made a direct hit at Brownsville with an estimated wind of 109 knots observed at the airport. Allen provided a 68-knot gust at the airport. The greatest 24-hour rainfall at Brownsville occurred during Beulah. Over 12 inches was documented on September 20, 1967.

Temperatures in summer and fall are not extremely high, but are fairly constant in the lower nineties during the daytime, and in the middle seventies at night. The average annual temperature at Brownsville is 74.1F with an average high of 82.8F and an average low of 65.0F. August is the warmest month with an average temperature of 84.7F and January is the coolest with an average temperature of 60.5F. The prevailing onshore winds from the Gulf moderate the temperatures. The highest temperature recorded at Brownsville was 106F recorded in March 1984. Each month March through August has recorded temperatures in excess of 100F while each month, November through March, has recorded temperatures at or below freezing. The lowest temperature on record at Brownsville is 16F recorded in December 1989.

Winter temperatures are mild, with the normal daily minimum for January, the coldest month, being 51.0F. Frequently an entire winter will pass without a temperature as low as the freezing point occurring. Snow seldom occurs in Brownsville, however, local newspaper records reveal that 6 inches of snow blanketed the area in 1895.

Pilotage is compulsory for all foreign vessels and U.S. vessels under register in foreign trade. Pilotage is optional for coastwise vessels that have on board a pilot licensed by the Federal Government.

The pilots board vessels within 1 mile of the sea buoy. The Brazos Santiago Pilots maintain a station on Padre Island near the Port Isabel Coast Guard Station. The pilot boat V is 52 feet long with a green hull and white deckhouse with the word PILOT on the house. The pilot boat VI is 32 feet long with an orange hull and silver deckhouse. The standard Rules of the Road day and night signals are shown on the pilot boats. The pilot boats monitor VHF-FM channel 16 and work on channels 12 and 16. The pilot station works on channels 12 and 16.

Port Brownsville, about 14.5 miles from the inner end of Brazos Santiago Pass, is the port for the city of Brownsville. Exports include cotton, cotton products, lead, agricultural implements, zinc, sulfate, ores, chemicals, petroleum products, and citrus fruit. Imports are fruit, steel products, ores, and general cargo. Offshore oil rigs are constructed and repaired in Port Brownsville.

Brownsville, about 5 miles WSW of Port Brownsville, is a fast growing metropolis and the largest city in the rich agricultural section on the N side of the lower Rio Grande Valley that extends 100 miles W from the river mouth. Noted as a resort city, it is also a gateway to Matamoros, Mexico, on the opposite side of the Rio Grande.

All manner of marine supplies and provisions are available at the port. Freshwater is available at most of the wharves. Gasoline, diesel fuel, and kerosene are available at the oil wharves. Bunker fuels can be delivered by barge from Corpus Christi by special arrangements.

Port of Brownsville has no facilities for making major repairs or for drydocking deep-draft vessels; the nearest such facilities are at Galveston. Several firms are available for making above-the-waterline repairs to vessels. Shafts up to 30 feet long can be produced by a local firm. The largest marine railway can handle vessels up to 200 tons.

The Port of Brownsville is a large and growing player in the international trade at the crossroads of North America. As ships get bigger and the amount of commerce grows, it needs the infrastructure and a deeper channel to accommodate larger ships and barges. The area has been working on this matter since 1982. The Corps of Engineers completed the federally funded Reconnaissance Study in September 2004 and recommended that the Corps proceed with the feasibility study with the Port of Brownsville.

President Bush's FY2006 budget included $2.5 million for studying and enlarging the Port of Brownsville Ship Channel, setting the stage in Brownsville for greater economic development and bringing more jobs to the Rio Grande Valley. This funding was used for the feasibility study stage of the Port of Brownsville's Widening and Deepening Program.

On September 11, 2001, both towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked by terrorists. National security and intelligence officials have warned that future terrorist attacks against civilian targets may be anticipated. In response to these terrorist acts and continued warnings, heightened awareness for the security and safety of all vessels, ports and harbors is necessary.

On May 10, 2002, the Coast Guard published a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) entitled ``Security Zones; Port of Port Lavaca-Point Comfort, Point Comfort, TX; Port of Corpus Christi Inner Harbor, Corpus Christi, TX; and Port of Brownsville, Brownsville, TX'', in the Federal Register (67 FR 31750).

The Coast Guard received seven letters commenting on the proposed rule, including requests for a public hearing on the proposed Port of Brownsville zone. No public hearing was held as the Coast Guard decided not to implement the proposed security zone for the Port of Brownsville at this time. Six of the comments opposed the creation of a security zone in the Brownsville Ship Channel because of the impact it might have on the local fishing industry. Five of these comments addressed what they considered to be a lack of sufficient threat in this area to require a security zone. After evaluating the comments received and touring the area in question with local port and recreational fishing representatives, the Coast Guard determined there is not a need establish the proposed security zone for the Port of Brownsville in the current threat environment.

The Bahia Grande is an 11,000-acre basin off Highway 48 west of the Brownsville Ship Channel. It was once connected to the Laguna Madre, but dried out after the Brownsville Ship Channel was built in the 1930s. That and the construction of Highway 48 cut off the flow of water from the Gulf of Mexico to the Bahia Grande.

The purchase of Bahia Grande by the USFWS and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its incorporation into the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge was the starting point for the restoration of Bahia Grande, which was cut off from tidal water in the 1930s with the construction of the Brownsville Ship Channel. The restoration project has the support of the Brownsville - Port Isabel community and national organizations.

Project partners include the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Coastal Program, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Community-based Restoration Program, Environmental Protection Agency as federal funding partners, Ocean Trust, Gulf of Mexico Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation as private foundation partners, National Fisheries Institute (NFI), Brownsville-Port Isabel Shrimp Association, and Texas Coastal Conservation Association as commercial and sports industry partners as well as Cameron County Offices, the Brownsville Navigation District, Texas A&M University, and the schools within Brownsville, Port Isabel and Los Fresnos that surround Bahia Grande.

The 2003 restoration project calls for the construction of five new channels, ranging in length from 2,000 feet to 8,250 feet. The channels will be 2 to 4 feet deep and 50 to 60 feet wide. One will connect the Bahia Grande basin with San Martin Lake, which in turn connects to the Brownsville Ship Channel - allowing water to flow into the Bahia Grande. The basin held some water as the result of spring rains. Other channels will connect the Bahia Grande and Laguna Larga basins, the Bahia Grande and Little Laguna Madre basins, and the Laguna Larga and Little Laguna Madre basins. Another channel will provide a direct connection between the Bahia Grande and the Brownsville Ship Channel. Local U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff constructed the channels using rented equipment. The project partners expected water to start flowing by the end of the year.

Hurricane Emily prompted an early kickoff of the first phase of restoring 10,000 acres of tidal wetlands on the Bahia Grande Unit of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. With South Texas appearing to be in bull's-eye of Hurricane Emily, Brownsville Navigation District (BND) officials feared the hurricane would damage their recently constructed "pilot channel", which connected the dry Bahia Grande basin to the Brownsville Ship Channel. With only a dirt plug in the 15-foot wide channel preventing tidal waters from flowing north into the Bahia Grande, BND officials decided to open the pilot channel 12 days earlier than a scheduled dedication event. With the hurricane hurtling toward South Texas and northern Mexico, an impromptu event was held at midday on Saturday, July 16, 2005, to celebrate the opening of the pilot channel and to name it after Carl "Joe" Gayman, a BND Commissioner. In April 1983, Mr. Gayman had dug a small channel, in the same location, in an effort to flood the Bahia Grande with the hope of adding nursery habitat for shrimp. Two weeks after opening his channel, a court order forced Mr. Gayman to close the channel. The owners of the Bahia Grande feared losing their mineral rights if the flooded Bahia Grande basin was declared state navigable waters.



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