THE BEAUTY OF BAJA
Part 5: Laguna de los Volcanes
Bruce F. Barber
The site of North America’s second largest geothermal-powered electricity generating plant, the Laguna de los Volcanes (Volcano Lake) lies in a sprawling desert thirty kilometers southeast of Mexicali. It is a surprising place where jets of steam disappear into the atmosphere amidst a setting of cactus, sage and mesquite. In reality, there is no lake there, not any more, but there are hundreds of steam vents driving turbines which, in turn, drive electricity generators. Altogether, the site is providing the Mexicali Valley (and parts of nearby San Diego county) with an abundance of electrical power.
The Laguna de los Volcanes is a 20-square-mile area of industrial development: 20 square miles of wells, pipes, turbines, generators, transformers, control centers, switching stations and steam vents. It is 20 hazardous square miles where natural forces have ruptured the earth’s crust to allow the escape of heat rising from below!
As heat rises from within the earth, water from surface-drilled wells comes into contact with superheated rocks, flashes into steam, and is ejected under pressures created by that conversion. But this is today when the miracle of learning has permitted scientists and engineers to develop such a marvelous undertaking:.What about yesterday?
According to geologists, the Laguna de los Volcanes is situated along the Cerro Prieto fault, a branch of the San Andreas fault system. It was created by plate tectonic pressures that fractured the land between 20 and 5 million years ago creating this particular arena and its adjacent volcano, Cerro Prieto.
Because it is located near the eastern edge of the continuously moving Pacific Plate, the question arises, “How long can this power source be counted on?” The answer appears to be “indefinitely” but that gives rise to another question: “How many steam vents will the system support?”
To date, more than 40 steam-producing-wells have been drilled. The casual visitor will undoubtedly see well drilling rigs punching new holes into the earth suggesting its full potential has yet to be realized. But that, too, relates to today, a fact that inevitably leads some of us back to, “What about yesterday?”
According to archeologists and anthropologists formerly associated with Arizona and New Mexico Universities, the Laguna was originally seen by Indians who came into the region about 39,000 years ago. These natives could have been descendants of Indians familiar with the Yellowstone geothermal area of Wyoming. Such a natural phenomenon undoubtedly created beliefs in gods living within the earth who displayed their anger by making the land tremble and the sands boil; by making steam issue forth from rocks and the air to smell so foul it could turn a man to stone.
Beliefs such as these would foster stories to be passed from generation to generation in the same manner most of early man’s wisdom was handed down. It may be assumed that these early discoverers knew, as a result of their stories, what the place was and how it was to be venerated.
According to historians, the first European to come upon the site was Melchior Díaz and the twenty–five Conquistadors that accompanied him. What they saw would have been a hot water lake, boiling mud pots, geysers of steam and patches of treacherously soft ground to be avoided at all costs.
The fact that the Laguna was mentioned by historians entreating the Díaz mystery lends credence to the proposition that Melchior Díaz was the first European to set foot on Baja California Norte. Be that as it may, the Laguna has seen the passage of thousands of men and animals over the tenure of its lifespan.
Access to the geothermal site is provided by a macadam road running between Ejido Oaxaca in the south and Ejido Puebla in the north. Driving from San Felipe on Federal Highway5, turn east at La Puerta’s north–side Pemex station and continue easterly via Poblado Zakamoto to State Highway1. Turn north and drive 5 kilometers to the center of Ejido Oaxaca (one block before Oaxaca’s Pemex station) and turn west on a 4-lane divided street. After crossing the railroad tracks, turn north again and, 7 kilometers later, enter the geothermal area.
As we made our way along this busy roadway, we were thrilled by the magnificence of this natural phenomenon and the opportunity to be there. The fact that the area was industrially developed was of little importance to us. It was the historical nature of the place and how man has benefited from it that captured our thoughts.
We wondered about the presence of prehistoric animals in the area. How many saber toothed tigers, camels or mastodons have stood on these same heated grounds? What rituals did the ancient ones perform here? And, although pressed for time, what did Melchior Díaz and his conquistadors think of this place? Did they slow their pace long enough to marvel at the boiling pools of steam-heated mud? Were there geysers here, issuing forth their pressure-relieving jets of steam every five, ten or fifteen minutes?
Why is it we cannot go back in time to see the place as it was throughout the millennia? How I wish that I could for I’d be among the first to go. What I long to know is not what the desert looked like five million years ago, for this area has not always been desert. What I long for is to see the land as it existed before it became desert.
I would like to see the forest that covered the ground from El Centro to Puertecitos before it was petrified. What kinds of trees were they? What happened? Was it El Centinela that uprooted them with the power of one earth-shattering blast? Did it bury the trees under tons of flesh-searing ash that ultimately played a part in turning them to stone?
I’d like to see the Patterned Ground when it was being formed along the western boundary of that same forest. Patterned ground is a natural phenomenon caused by convection currents in freezing and thawing ground. The patterned ground I speak of lies in a one hundred mile long line stretching from the base of Cerro Coloradito to Blythe, California. It is composed of a series of three meter wide donut-shaped rings.
Composed of coarse gravel, some of the rings are filled with sand and surrounded by finer gravel, others are filled with a finer gravel and surrounded by sand. How is it that there could have been a forest standing next to freezing and thawing ground? How could there have been freezing temperatures in a temperate zone?
A few miles south of Cerro Coloradito lay a series of canyons crowded with hot springs, rivers, blue fan palms and Indian morteros. The walls above each of these venerated places are covered with countless paintings and drawings made by Natives recording things most important to them. Perhaps one of those ancient drawings describes the Laguna de los Volcanes and the gods that dwelled therein.
They say it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature and yet, here, in a 50-mile-wide circle Mother Nature is fooling with us with her petrified forest, Patterned Ground, hot springs, blue fan palms and the Laguna de los Volcanes. It was she who brought Native Americans to our area and because of her they left their messages upon the rocks.
It was Mother Nature who laid a path before Melchior Díaz and because of her he went to a premature grave. It was she who brought me to this region and it is because of her that I seek answers to these fascinating questions. Tell me your secrets, Dear Lady. Tell me what I long to know of the magnificent, unending, incomparable beauty of Baja California.