Although this region is a desert, with high temperatures and low average rainfall of 3 inches (76 mm) per year, the economy is heavily based on agriculture due to irrigation, supplied wholly from the Colorado River via the All-American Canal.
The Imperial Valley is divided between the United States and Mexico, and Imperial County is heavily influenced by Mexican culture. Approximately 80% of the county's population is Hispanic, with the vast majority being of Mexican origin. The remainder of the population is predominantly non-Hispanic white as well as smaller African American, Native American and Asian minorities.
In 2016, Imperial County had the highest percentage of unemployed people of any county in the United States, at 23.5%.
Juan Bautista de Anza Becerra Nieto
Spanish explorer Melchor Díaz was one of the first Europeans to visit the area around Imperial Valley in 1540. The explorer Juan Bautista de Anza also explored the area in 1776. Years later, after the Mexican–American War, the northern half of the valley was annexed by the U.S., while the southern half remained under Mexican rule. Small scale settlement in natural aquifer areas occurred in the early 19th century (the present-day site of Mexicali), but most permanent settlement (Americans in the U.S. side, Mexicans in the other side) was after 1900.
In 1905, torrential rainfall in the American Southwest caused the Colorado River (the only drainage for the region) to flood, including canals that had been built to irrigate the Imperial Valley. Since the valley is partially below sea level, the waters never fully receded, but collected in the Salton Sink in what is now called the Salton Sea.
Imperial County was formed in 1907 from the eastern portion of San Diego County. The county took its name from Imperial Valley, itself named for the Imperial Land Company, a subsidiary of the California Development Company, which at the turn of the 20th century had claimed the southern portion of the Colorado Desert for agriculture. Much of the Imperial Land Company's land also existed in Mexico (Baja California). The objective of the company was commercial crop farming development.
By 1910, the land company had managed to settle and develop thousands of farms on both sides of the border. The Mexican Revolution soon after severely disrupted the company's plans. Nearly 10,000 farmers and their families in Mexico were ethnically cleansed by the rival Mexican armies. Not until the 1920s was the other side of California in America sufficiently peaceful and prosperous for the company to earn a return for a large percentage of Mexicans, but some chose to stay and lay down roots in newly sprouted communities in the valley.
The county experienced a period of migration of "Okies" from drought-trodden dust bowl farms by the need of migrant labor, and prosperous job-seekers alike from across the U.S. arrived in the 1930s and 1940s, especially in World War II and after the completion of the All American Canal from its source, the Colorado River, from 1948 to 1951. By the 1950 census, over 50,000 residents lived in Imperial County alone, about 40 times that of 1910. Most of the population was year-round but would increase every winter by migrant laborers from Mexico. Until the 1960s, the farms in Imperial County provided substantial economic returns to the company and the valley.
Currently, El Centro has one of the highest unemployment rates (above 30–34%) in the U.S. and ranks one of California's poorest counties or have a lower than state and national average annual household income.
Sites of interest
Fort Yuma is located on the banks of the Colorado River in Winterhaven, California. First established after the end of the Mexican–American War in 1848, it was originally located in the bottoms near the Colorado River, less than 1 mile (1.6 km) below the mouth of the Gila River. It was to defend the newly settled community of Yuma, Arizona on the other side of the Colorado River and the nearby Mexican border. In March 1851 the post was moved to a small elevation on the Colorado's west bank, opposite the present city of Yuma, Arizona, on the site of the former Mission Puerto de Purísima Concepción. This site had been occupied by Camp Calhoun, named for John C. Calhoun, established in 1849. Fort Yuma was established to protect the southern emigrant travel route to California and to attempt control of the Yuma Indians in the surrounding 100-mile (160 km) area.
The city of Imperial is home to the California Mid-Winter Fair and Fiesta which is the local county fair, held in late February to early March. It is also home to the Imperial Valley Speedway, a race track of 3⁄8 mile (600 m).
Algodones Sand Dunes
The Algodones Dunes
The name Algodones Dunes refers to the entire geographic feature, while the administrative designation for that portion managed by the Bureau of Land Management is the "Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area" (sometimes called the "Glamis Dunes"). The Algodones Sand Dunes are the largest mass of sand dunes in California. This dune system extends for more than 40 miles (64 km) along the eastern edge of the Imperial Valley agricultural region in a band averaging 5 miles (8 km) in width. A major east-west route of the Union Pacific railroad skirts the eastern edge. The dune system is divided into three areas. The northernmost area is known as Mammoth Wash. South of Mammoth Wash is the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness established by the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. This area is closed to motorized use and access is by hiking and horseback. The largest and most heavily used area begins at Highway 78 and continues south just past Interstate 8. The expansive dune formations offer picturesque scenery, a chance to view rare plants and animals, and a playground for ATV and off-roading enthusiasts. The dunes are also popular in film making and have been the site for movies such as Return of the Jedi.
The Colorado River streams through the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, approximately 1,450 miles (2,330 km) long, draining a part of the arid regions on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains. The natural course of the river flows from north of Grand Lake, Colorado, into the Gulf of California. For many months out of the year, however, no water actually flows from the United States to the gulf, due to human use. The river is a popular destination for water sports, including fishing, boating, water skiing, and jet skiing.
The , located on the eastern side of the Coyote Mountains, consists of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks. Heat and movement over time has created fantastic shapes and colors. Oranges, reds, purples, and mauves mixed with browns and blacks create a palette of color as the sun illuminates and plays shadows upon this geologic wonder.
Mesquite Point at Imperial NWR
The Imperial National Wildlife Refuge protects wildlife habitat along 30 miles (50 km) of the lower Colorado River in Arizona and California, including the last un-channeled section before the river enters Mexico. The river and its associated backwater lakes and wetlands are a green oasis, contrasting with the surrounding desert mountains. It is a refuge and breeding area for migratory birds and local desert wildlife.
Sonny Bono Salton Sea NWR
The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge is located 40 miles (64 km) north of the Mexican border at the southern end of the Salton Sea in California's Imperial Valley. Situated along the Pacific Flyway, the refuge is the only one of its kind, located 227 feet (69 m) below sea level. Because of its southern latitude, elevation, and location in the Colorado Desert, the refuge experiences some of the highest temperatures in the nation. Daily temperatures from May to October generally exceed 100 °F (38 °C) with temperatures of 116–120 °F (47–49 °C) recorded yearly.
Museum of History in Granite
A unique attraction of the town of Felicity is the Museum of History in Granite. The museum exhibits granite monuments made from Missouri Red Granite. Each is 100 feet (30 m) long. Subjects include a Korean War Memorial, History of Arizona, The Wall for the Ages, the eight monument History of Humanity, and the History of the United States of America. Smaller monuments include the Felicity Stone (sm), a Rosetta Stone for the future located at the center of the History of Humanity monuments.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 4,482 square miles (11,610 km2), of which 4,177 square miles (10,820 km2) is land and 305 square miles (790 km2) (6.8%) is water. Much of Imperial County is below sea level. Imperial County is roughly twice the size in total square miles as the State of Delaware.
The Colorado River forms the county's eastern boundary. Two notable geographic features are found in the county, the Salton Sea, at 235 feet (72 m) below sea level, and the Algodones Dunes, one of the largest dune fields in America.
In this region, the geology is dominated by the transition of the tectonic plate boundary from rift to fault. The southernmost strands of the San Andreas Fault connect the northernmost extensions of the East Pacific Rise. Consequently, the region is subject to earthquakes, and the crust is being stretched, resulting in a sinking of the terrain over time. Related to the active geology are some interesting hydrothermal features.
There were 39,384 households out of which 46.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 57.7% were married couples living together, 17.1% had a female householder with no husband present, and 20.1% were non-families. 17.1% of all households were made up of individuals and 8.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 3.33 and the average family size was 3.77.
In the county, the population was spread out with 31.4% under the age of 18, 9.9% from 18 to 24, 30.4% from 25 to 44, 18.2% from 45 to 64, and 10.0% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 31 years. For every 100 females there were 109.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 111.4 males.
The median income for a household in the county was $31,870, and the median income for a family was $35,226. Males had a median income of $32,775 versus $23,974 for females. The per capita income for the county was $13,239. About 19.4% of families and 22.6% of the population were below the poverty line, including 28.7% of those under age 18 and 13.6% of those age 65 or over.
Imperial County has the lowest per capita income of any county in Southern California and among the bottom five counties in the state.
By 2006 the population had risen to 160,201, the population growth rate since the year 2000 was 30%, the highest in California and fifth highest in the United States in the time period. High levels of immigration, new residents search for affordable homes, and a search for retirement homes can explain the population increase.
The county is governed by the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, a five-member board elected by districts. Supervisors serve four-year terms. Other elected county officials include the Assessor, Auditor-Controller, District Attorney, County Clerk-Recorder, Public Administrator, Sheriff-Coroner, and Treasurer-Tax Collector. The county is run on a day-to-day basis by the County Executive Officer, who is currently Robin Hodgkin, on an interim basis. The county is advised as to legal matters by the County Counsel, who is currently Katherine K. Turner.
Previously strongly Republican, Imperial County is now a Democratic stronghold in presidential, congressional and local elections. The last Republican to win a majority in the county was George H. W. Bush in 1988.
Presidential elections results
Imperial County vote by party in presidential elections
Thousands of acres of prime farmland have transformed the desert into one of the most productive farming regions in California with an annual crop production of over $1 billion. Agriculture is the largest industry in Imperial County and accounts for 48% of all employment. Although this region is a desert, with high temperatures and low average rainfall of three inches (75 mm) per year, the economy is heavily based on agriculture due to irrigation, which is supplied wholly from the Colorado River via the All-American Canal. A vast system of canals, check dams, and pipelines carry the water all over the valley, a system which forms the Imperial Irrigation District, or IID. The water distribution system includes over 1,400 miles (2,300 km) of canal and with 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of pipeline. The number of canal and pipeline branches number roughly over a hundred. Imported water and a long growing season allow two crop cycles each year, and the Imperial Valley is a major source of winter fruits and vegetables, cotton, and grain for U.S. and international markets. Alfalfa is another major crop produced in the Imperial Valley. The agricultural lands are served by a constructed agricultural drain system, which conveys surface runoff and subsurface drainage from fields to the Salton Sea, which is a designated repository for agricultural runoff. Imperial County produces nearly 2/3 of all vegetables consumed by Americans during the winter.
El Centro is the commercial center of Imperial County. Fifty percent of the jobs in El Centro come from the service and retail sector.
A recent growth in the interest of Imperial County as a filming location, has spurred growth in servicing this industry. Because of the county's desert environment and proximity to Los Angeles, California, movies are sometimes filmed in the sand dunes outside the agricultural portions of the county. These have included Return of the Jedi, Stargate, The Scorpion King, and Into the Wild. Additionally, portions of the 2005 film Jarhead were filmed here because of its similarity to the desert terrain of Iraq.
Renewable energy source
Imperial Valley has become a hotbed of renewable energy projects, both solar and geothermal. This is driven in part by California's mandate to generate 20% of its power from renewable sources by the end of 2010, the valley's excellent sun resources, the high unemployment, its proximity to large population centers on the coast, and large tracts of otherwise unusable desert land. Much of the land suitable for green energy is owned by the federal government (Bureau of Land Management). As of April 2008, the BLM has received 163 applications to build renewable energy projects on 1,600,000 acres (6,500 km2) in California. Almost all of these are planned for the Imperial Valley and the desert region north of the valley. Stirling Energy is currently building one of the world's largest solar thermal plants, 10 square miles (26 km2) with 38,000 "sun catchers," it will power up to 600,000 homes once it is fully operational by around 2015. CalEnergy currently runs a geothermal plant that generates enough power for 300,000 homes and could tap into more for up to 2.5 million homes.
Imperial County Airport, the county's main airport, is primarily a general aviation facility. It is located just north of El Centro, and has limited commercial flight service subsidized by the Essential Air Service program.
Holtville Airport is a public use general aviation airport, owned by the county and located roughly 5 miles (8 km) east of Holtville.
The video game Grand Theft Auto V features a county named Blaine County, which is based on Imperial County.
In the 1963 film, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Ethel Merman's character is heard talking on a phone to her son, saying that she was "in some place called Plaster City." Plaster City is an unincorporated community in Imperial County.