Cameron County Breaks Ground on Amphitheater, Multipurpose Building

Officials from around Cameron County gathered Wednesday at Isla Blanca Park for the groundbreaking of new facilities that are slated to open by late summer.

The $6.2 million project, funded through the county’s hotel and car rental taxes, includes an amphitheater that will seat 4,000 and a 6,800-square-foot multipurpose building.

“When this park is renovated and updated, there won’t be a park in the country more beautiful,” County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. said.

The amphitheater will provide an ideal view to watch SpaceX rocket launches, like the one Tuesday, that take place on Boca Chica Beach, Precinct 1 Commissioner Sofia Benavides said.

“As God would have it, we have Isla Blanca Park right across the ship channel,” she said.

County Parks Director Joe Vega said the multipurpose building will have audio and video equipment and will seat up to 250 people.

Also in Isla Blanca Park, the county will spend $17 million in gulf-side improvements and $13 million is RV site improvements, Trevino said. The parks department is wrapping up $3.5 million in upgrades at EK Atwood Park.

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo Staff Writer

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TxDOT: Ocelot Uses Highway 48 Corridor

In the past couple of years the Texas Department of Transportation has built corridors in several locations in Cameron County to help wildlife make it across the busy highways.

Today TxDOT released a photo of an endangered ocelot using the corridor under Highway 48 in the Brownsville area.

The picture, which was taken with a motion sensor camera in April 2017, shows the ocelot coming out of the brush near the corridor opening and almost looking straight into the camera.

Similar corridors were added to Highway 100 East of Los Fresnos and FM 106 East of Rio Hondo near Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.

Wildlife experts hope the animals use the underground concrete tunnels to avoid being struck by vehicles. Over the years a number of ocelots have been killed on roads in eastern Cameron County.

TxDOT says it has an environmental affairs division that is responsible for integrating environment considerations into all road and highway projects.

By Diana Eva Maldonado, Staff writer

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50 Sea Turtles to Be Set Free on the Island Today

Some 50 sea turtles are warmed up and ready to go.

A cold-stunning event netted Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island 50 sea turtles which have been rehabilitated at the center and will be returned to the Gulf of Mexico today.

The release is open to the public and will occur along the gulf beach between the pavilion and the jetties at 1 p.m.

Just three weeks ago, 309 cold-stunned sea turtles were rescued by Sea Turtle Inc. and teams from Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Game Wardens and other volunteers along South Padre Island and Boca Chica Beach.

“There are theories of why we haven’t seen as many this cold snap,” Kat Lillie, assistant curator at the turtle center, said yesterday. “I would say probably because they’ve either acclimated to the cold or moved out of the area or gone deeper. But there’s nothing like a concrete theory — there are a few theories.”

When air temperatures drop suddenly in South Texas, the temperature of the shallow waters of the Laguna Madre can drop below 50 degrees.

When that happens, the mostly juvenile green sea turtles enter a state in which they appear coma-tose, and become stranded and can’t make it back to warmer gulf waters.

At that point, they are at risk of dying from exposure or predation.

It’s been a record winter so far for cold-stunned turtles, with more than 2,500 cold-stunned green sea turtles rescued between South Padre Island and the Corpus Christi area.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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State of the Island: Mayor Stahl Delivers Annual Address

Mayor Dennis Stahl’s State of the Island address was sizzling.

Stahl spoke about the Island’s big moves in 2017 and what is to come now that he is mayor.

“This address is a quick glimpse of what we have in store for the Island,” Stahl said yesterday in his address. “I will dedicate myself for what is right for SPI.”

Stahl highlighted the Island’s hot topics from its economic wealth, last year’s big projects and what the city leaders and administration are aiming for in 2018.

“What they have accomplished in the past year has been tremendous and we want to be part of the plans for 2018,” said Roxanne Ray, Island Chamber of Commerce president.

More than 100 people attended the State of the Island speech sponsored by the Chamber, Brisky & Perez Insurance Agency and the Hilton Garden Inn.

“We are all excited about researching the idea of using the Island as a cruise line Port of Call,” Ray said.

The city dove into looking at their options to make the Island a cruise line ship destination last month.

“I’m excited about 2018 and the future of the Island that the mayor and council has envisioned for us,” said Paul Gifford, an Island resident and real estate agent. “Things are going to look positive for the years to come.”

He also agreed the possibility of the Island becoming a port of call for cruise ships is very exciting, along with the opportunities SpaceX can bring to the Island.

“I’m in this position to get things done,” Stahl said. “You can’t get anything done without trying.”

By RAUL GARCIA Staff Writer

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Sea Turtle Teams on South Padre Island Still Waiting to Deploy

After bracing for a major cold-stunned turtle event, staff and volunteers at Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island were pleased yet puzzled when just three sea turtles were brought in Wednesday.

Two of the turtles were alive, and one was deceased, said Jeff George, executive director of Sea Turtle Inc.

"One of two things is happening," George said Tuesday. "Either the previous cold front has helped acclimate them to cold water, or they got deep enough that they may be able to ride through this.

"Or we will start seeing them (Wednesday)," he added.

Just two weeks ago, 309 cold-stunned sea turtles were rescued by Sea Turtle Inc. and teams from Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Game Wardens and other volunteers along South Padre Island and Boca Chica Beach.

When air temperatures drop suddenly in South Texas, the temperatures of the shallow waters of the Laguna Madre plunge with them.

When water temperatures drop below 50 degrees, sea turtles enter a state in which they appear comatose, because reptiles cannot control their own body temperatures.

Most of these cold-stunned turtles are juvenile green sea turtles and are found in the Laguna Madre, where they have gone to feed. In those protected waters, the turtles become stranded and can’t make it back to warmer gulf waters.

At that point, they are at risk of dying from exposure or predation.

"We know today it’s down to 50 degrees which is generally when you would start seeing a bunch of turtles," George said. "We’re not sure which scenario is going to be the right one."


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Starbucks Coming to Port Isabel

 A “cuppa” latte or macchiato is going to be easier to find in Port Isabel.

Starbucks is building a new coffee shop at the intersection of State Highway 48 and State Highway 100.

“We do have a Starbucks coming into town, but I really don’t know much of the specifications right now,” Robert Salinas, administrator for the Port Isabel Economic Development Corp., said yesterday.

“They’re already working on the site and I believe they’re putting up cinder blocks,” he added.

The $300,000 new construction will consist of a shell building and parking lot for the coffee franchise.

Starbucks has three locations in Harlingen and another three in Brownsville.

But this will be the first Starbucks location in the Port Isabel-South Padre Island area.

Work is expected to be completed by late spring or early summer, according to documents Starbucks has filed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.

The Starbucks will be located near the intersection of state highways 100 and 48 in front of the Bealls Department Store at 1750 State Highway 100, officials said.

“I think it’s going to be great for the community,” Salinas said. “I think they’re going to do great and I wish them the best of luck.”

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer

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County Commissioners Updated on Road Projects

Cameron County road construction projects are cruising along, according to updates presented Tuesday to the commissioners court.

Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority Executive Director Pete Sepulveda Jr. said getting county infrastructure improvements to the construction phase is important to securing federal funding.

“It’s an opportunity to go before the court and let them know if we have any issues they can assist with,” he said. “We want to make sure our delegation in Washington is aware of the projects we’re working on, whether it’s a rail or bridge or road project, so that we can tap into funding.”

Plans to build a second access bridge to South Padre Island, this one north of Laguna Vista, are in the environmental impact study phase.

Sepulveda said the mobility authority received input on the project last year from outside engineers and are resubmitting some of its studies on which the Texas Department of Transportation based recommendations that will save costs. The design phase could start during the next 15-18 months.

“That’s a very complex project,” he said. “There are a lot of phases to it, and it takes a lot longer than a normal project.”

Plans to make the second South Padre Island bridge a toll road have been scrapped. County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. said Texas administrators have moved away from establishing toll roads because they haven’t seen a return in revenue.

Sepulveda said the biggest focus for the project is still getting its environmental plans cleared, which will open it to state and federal funding.

The Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority is seeking funding for the expansion of the Veterans Bridge, which will add four passenger lanes for $1.5 million and three commercial lanes for $10 million. If state or federal funds are secured, Sepulveda said construction could begin within a year to 18 months.

Construction on Old Alice Road from Highway 100 to Highway 550 is set to begin in about one year. The project will cost about $5 million, Sepulveda said.

While it’s smaller than the other projects on the county’s roster, he added, the improvements will be important to residents who travel between Brownsville and Los Fresnos.

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo Staff Writer

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Wait and See: Officials Monitoring South Padre Island for Fish Kills

State and local authorities are still waiting to see whether cold temperatures will result in a fish kill on South Padre Island.

On a frigid cloudy Tuesday, temperatures were in the 40s, but strong winds made the Island feel much colder. There was a constant drizzle.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Cameron County Parks Director Joe Vega and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said they hadn’t found any fish kills yet. Misty Porte, a marketing assistant with Sea Turtle Inc., said patrols looking for cold-stunned turtles in the area had not noted any fish kills, either.

“I just got back from a patrol with another staff member,” Porte said Tuesday morning. “We didn’t notice any of that but the tide is pretty far out so maybe when the tide comes in (the fish) will get pushed in.”

Sea Turtle Inc. is preparing for another round of cold-stunned turtles because of the chilly temperatures. The nonprofit agency was to be closed today as it prepares for an influx of endangered sea turtles.

Julie Hagen, a social media specialist with the Coastal Fisheries Division of TPWD, said it’s not surprising that South Padre Island hasn’t seen evidence of a fish kill yet.

“With this type of freeze event we are not expecting fish kills to surface for a few more days when the temperature increases and the dead fish surface,” Hagen said in an email.

On Monday, TPWD announced that fishing bans would be in effect because of the freezing temperatures. There are two bans in place in Cameron County.

No fishing is allowed in the area from the shore out to a line from the middle of the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway on the northwest and the end of the old causeway on the southeast, including the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway bounded by the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway on the north and the Port Isabel Swing Bridge on the south. The adjacent canal in Port Isabel is not included in the ban.

The second area is in the Gulf of Mexico from, and including, the Brazos Santiago Pass south jetty along the beach for one half mile and out from shore for 1,000 yards.

The entire harbor in Willacy County from the bulkheads on either side of the harbor to the harbor mouth is also included in the ban, which lifts at 10 p.m. today.

“The length of a closure is based on the expected temperatures over a three- to four-day period,” Hagan said. “The more prolonged the freeze the longer the close can become. Temperatures are expected to rise beginning mid-day Thursday, Jan. 4; therefore we are lifting the ban the night before.”

The closures protect the fish, Hagan explained.

“These closures were made to protect surviving fish that are vulnerable to capture during the freeze event,” Hagan said. “Hard freezes cause surviving fish to congregate in deeper water and become sluggish – thus becoming more prone to capture by anglers because of their close proximity and lethargic nature induced by the cold temperatures.”

According to TPWD, there are two million acres of bays and estuaries susceptible to freeze in the Lone Star State.

In the 1980s, there were three major freezes, including a 1989 freeze where temperatures dropped to 16 degrees, killing an estimated 11 million fish near Brownsville, according to TPWD.

Late Tuesday morning and early afternoon, no dead fish were observed at the Jaime Zapata Memorial Boat Ramp; or on the north side of Highway 48 by the Carl “Joe” Gayman Channel; at the South Padre Island public bay access; or on the beach near Isla Grande Beach Resort; or off the boardwalk at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, which is on the bay.

Javier Gonzalez, a naturalist and educator at the SPI Birding and Nature Center, said that in early December dead fish washed up in the area after cold weather. That same bout of cold resulted in numerous cold-stunned turtles being rescued, 60 of which were released about a week later into the Gulf of Mexico.

“If there’s one this week it gets real active,” Gonzalez said, explaining that birds and other wildlife take advantage of a fish kill to regain calories lost during cold snaps.

“The pelicans especially come and gorge,” Gonzalez said. “Even birds that don’t eat fish eat to get calories.”

Other scavengers, like crabs and sea gulls, also arrive to feast, Gonzalez explained.

“Everybody’s hungry,” Gonzalez said of wildlife surviving the few cold stretches that descend on the Rio Grande Valley each year.

But there weren’t any dead fish yet, despite bitter wind blowing over the boardwalk.

The hundreds of ducks at the end of the boardwalk almost seemed to be enjoying the frigid air while floating in low tide, possibly waiting for an easy meal.

When asked what a fish kill is like, Gonzalez aptly replied: “It gets pretty fishy.”

TPWD is asking any anglers or coastal residents to report any freeze-related fish kills or large numbers of sluggish or cold-stunned fish by contacting the department’s Law Enforcement Communications office at (281) 842-8100 or (512) 389-4848.

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Beachgoers Kick Off New Year with Polar Bear Dip

As icy wind whipped the colorful flags planted in the sand outside Clayton’s Beach Bar on Monday, Christine Castillo and her sisters waited for the signal.

Precisely at noon, they joined the crowd rushing toward the water to start the new year as part of Clayton’s Annual Polar Bear Dip. It marked the 20th year people have gathered at South Padre Island for the event, which is celebrated around the world.

“It’s just that burst of energy you get,” Castillo, 48 of Harlingen, said of what brought her back to the dip for the 14th year. At 38 degrees Fahrenheit, it was one of the coldest days for the jump she can remember.

“It started out with a couple people just running from their house to the beach on New Year’s Day,” owner Clayton Brashear said. “I think they want to rid themselves of the previous year’s sins and (begin) the new year with a fresh start.”

He estimates Monday’s event drew about 1,000 people.

Among them was first-timer Mary Juarez, 37, who came alone from Brownsville to take the plunge. She had hoped the day would be a little warmer but was still excited.

“It’s something new. I didn’t want to back out because I told everyone I was going to do it,” she said, laughing. “Everybody stayed home, nice and cozy in bed.”

The Polar Bear Dip is an annual tradition for Nick Kapp, 54, of Pacifica, Calif. He has participated more times that he can remember, and couldn’t miss that chance to take part again while visiting family in the area.

“It’s a great thing to do to ring in the new year,” said Kapp, who was with his 15-year-old son, Ethan. “There’s a great community with it, and it’s a lot of fun. I’m really impressed everyone’s out here.”

Proceeds from Polar Bear Dip t-shirts benefit the Friends of Animal Rescue, a no-kill animal shelter on South Padre Island. Sherry Pindart, operations director for the nonprofit, anticipates the event will raise about $6,000 for the shelter, which is currently caring for 32 cats and dogs.

“It brings the community together and starts the new year off right,” she said.

As for Castillo, she and her family headed a few miles down the road to take the plunge again during a similar event at Boomerang Billy’s Beachfront Bar and Grill. She’ll be back next year, too, hopefully with her grandchildren in tow.

“Everybody should do it to keep themselves young,” Castillo said. “It’s a great family tradition.”

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo | Staff Writer

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Policy Now Set at Isla Blanca

Winter Texans, RV enthusiasts, South Padre Island lovers and locals alike will be able to reserve spots at the Isla Blanca RV Park starting Jan. 15.

Reservations had been on hold for the summer months of 2018 because of planned renovations to Isla Blanca Park, including upgrades to the RV park.

Earlier this week, the Cameron County Commissioners Court approved its new policy.

County Judge Eddie Trevino said that the changes are meant to make the reservation policy more fair.

“For decades, individuals had monopoly on a space,” Trevino said. “What was happening before is when people check in in May, they reserve for next May.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Alex Dominguez also believes this system will be better and more equal for parkgoers.

“We’re not doing this to be mean to anybody,” Dominguez said. “We’re just trying to give everyone a fair chance to enjoy our parks.”

Now, parkgoers will have to wait until Jan. 15 each year to reserve spots in Isla Blanca.

Also, commissioners approved limiting reservations during the peak summer season for up to three months and during the off season for up to six months. And, the county is doing away with weekly rental rates, limiting reservations to a daily or monthly basis.

But come Jan. 15, 2018, the Cameron County Parks Department expects it will be deluged with reservation requests, which have been put on hold since last May — a source of contention for many longtime RV park visitors who sought to claim their spots for 2018.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Sofia Benavides said there are lots of people waiting to reserve for the summer of 2018.

“I feel that maybe you’re going to be swamped with people who are upset,” Benavides said.

Cameron County Parks Director Javier Vega said his employees are expecting just that.

“We will be swamped,” Vega said. “It’s going to be chaotic and hectic that day.”

Making matters more complicated is that a planned online reservation system won’t be available for this year’s summer season. That won’t be ready until late April or early March, Vega said.

Reservations can only be made over the phone or by visiting the office at Isla Blanca Park.

“To reserve, they have to call our reservation office or come into our reservation office,” Vega said, prompting Benavides, who represents South Padre Island, to say she has apprehensions about it.

“We’re going to have to open it (up to reservations) one day or another,” Vega said.

Another big change to the RV park policies include no longer providing RV park visitors with two paper entrance passes. Now, anyone staying one month or longer will have to purchase those.

“They can buy up to two,” Vega said, explaining that change stems from people abusing the paper passes by sharing or selling them.

Also, RV park visitors will not be able to use generators, gas or diesel, unless there is an emergency situation or power outage.

All the policy changes take effect Jan. 1.

By MARK REAGAN Staff Writer

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