Monday, May 9, 2011

Baja California Salt Beds

There is an island called Cedros meaning cedar trees, 22 kilometers west of Punta Eugenia halfway down the Baja California peninsula. That‘s where the fish hooked shape Baja Peninsula kicks westward and encompasses a 370,950 hectare marine and whale sanctuary. Known before as Scammons’s / San Iganacio Lagoons, it is now designated both by UNESCO and the Mexican Government as the Sansebastian Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. The Pacific gray whales migrate 12,000 miles roundtrip here to find warm waters and blissful nursing beds there. However, I’m not telling “fish” stories. I wish I could surprise you and say that the solar evaporation salt beds coexist with these mammals of wonder. Whoever operates the plant, they must have had tough negotiations with environmental groups such as Greenpeace. Environmentalists would have opposed if the bay was utilized for commercial purposes. They may have evaded the possible opposition by moving the commercial base to Cedros Island.

The salt beds there spread over 33,000 hectares of land, equal to the size of Metropolitan Tokyo. In 1954, the world's wealthiest entrepreneur, Daniel K. Ludwig (1892-1992), started the Baja salt operation as an adjunct to his line of freighters. I remember him as the lease negotiator, after World War II, of the Kure Shipyard that built the Battleship Yamato and produced many tankers for his National Bulk Carriers. He decided to sell the salt business and the Japanese Mitsubishi (three diamonds) Shoji Corp, already engaged in salt works in Australia, showed keen interest. In the early 1970’s, Mitsubishi purchased the operation with provisions that the Mexican Government’s option to share stocks. Mitsubishi sent their officers immediately to oversee Baja. They were based in San Diego, where I lived. They knew it was a temporary assignment but I envied their work schedule, commuting to the Lagoon by a private jet, back with their families on weekends. I heard their meals were taken care of by locals on site. The expatriates left when the Mexican government bought majority of shares. I almost forgot about them, but I recently saw a news item about a boat named “Cedros” being launched from Hakata Shipyard located in Imabari, my first hometown, to embark on a Japan-Mexico voyage.

Briefly, here’s how the Lagoon natural salt nursery operates: A network of 13 ponds for concentrating sea water works with 64 smaller ponds where salt crystallizes. The total operation covers 200,000 acres, with 120 miles of dikes, 24 miles of canals and 27 miles of roads. The lagoon itself acts as the first of many evaporating ponds. The salinity of the lagoon is a trifle higher than that of the ocean. The main pumping station is at the other end of the lagoon.. Ten diesel pumps draw water out of the lagoon at a rate of nearly 300,000 gallons a minute and feed it into the evaporating ponds. When the concentration of salt reaches 25%, the water turns a bright pink. Solar absorption is increased by the pink color and as the temperature of brine increases, the evaporation rate goes up. When the brine is just short of total saturation, it is pumped into crystallizing ponds where the salt precipitates, forming crystals that fall to the floor of the pond and lump together in clusters as big as a fist. When the layer of crystals is about 6 inches deep, the salt is ready for harvest. The harvested salt is barged at Cedros Island. There could not have been a more ideal setting for these purposes. Sun power is free and is naturally utilized to convert salt water into salt crystals, even though it takes 18 months. Sea water, the raw material of this process is also available without limit. You can find out more about the operations here.

In 2008, salt production was reported to be 8 million tons per year, equal to the total of one year’s worth of Japanese salt imports. All transportation departs from Puerto Morro Redondo, on la Isla Cedros. I am flabbergasted that this port is the third largest port in Mexico, volume-wise, after Veracruz and Tampico, on the Atlantic Ocean. Eighty percent of their salt export was for industrial use, and I’m assuming it includes salt pellets for water softener application in the U.S. The island has a population of 2500, but can easily go up to 5,000 on a seasonal basis. Flights are available to Ensenada from Cedros Airport.

More images of the salt beds:
1. Aerial Photo
2. Gallery

1 comment:

Paul Dion, STL said...

Thank you for the great story. It's a great place to learn about what goes on in Mexico. Such a rich country! Beautiful too.