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Imperial County, California
County of Imperial
Imperial valley fields.jpg
Salton Sea Reflection.jpg
Imperial County Superior Courthouse El Centro Night.jpg
Images, from top down, left to right: The fields of Imperial Valley, Salton Sea, Imperial County Courthouse
Flag of Imperial County, California
Official seal of Imperial County, California
Location in the state of California
Location in the state of California
Country United States
State California
Region Imperial Valley
Incorporated August 7, 1907
Named for Imperial Valley, which was named after the Imperial Land Company
County seat El Centro
Largest city El Centro
 • Total 4,482 sq mi (11,610 km2)
 • Land 4,177 sq mi (10,820 km2)
 • Water 305 sq mi (790 km2)
Highest elevation
4,551 ft (1,387 m)
 • Total 179,702
 • Density 43/sq mi (17/km2)
Time zone UTC−8 (Pacific Time Zone)
 • Summer (DST) UTC−7 (Pacific Daylight Time)
Area codes 442/760
FIPS code 06-025
GNIS feature ID 277277

Imperial County is a county in the U.S. state of California. As of the 2010 census, the population was 174,528, making it the least populous county in Southern California. The county seat is El Centro. Imperial is the most recent California county to be established, as it was created in 1907 out of portions of San Diego County.

Imperial County is located in the far southeast of California, in the Imperial Valley. It borders the U.S. state of Arizona to the east and the Mexican state of Baja California to the south. It includes the El Centro Metropolitan Statistical Area and is part of the Southern California border region, the smallest but most economically diverse region in the state.

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.


Juan Bautista de Anza
Juan Bautista de Anza Bezerra 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 (Anglo 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, the world's only artificial inland 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 U.S' highest unemployment rates (above 30-34%) and ranks one of the state's poorest counties or have a lower than state and national average annual household income.

Sites of interest

Fort Yuma

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.

Blue Angels

Blue Angels

NAF El Centro is the winter home of the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, The Blue Angels. NAF El Centro historically kicks off the Blue Angels' season with their first air show, traditionally held in March.

Imperial Valley Expo & fairgrounds

Home to the California Mid-Winter Fair and Fiesta which is the local county fair, held in late February to early March and known throughout North America. It is also home to the Imperial Valley Speedway, a race track of 38 mile (600 m).

Algodones Sand Dunes

Imperial 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 (60 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 3 areas. The northern most 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.

Colorado River

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.

Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain (location 33°15′14.9″N 115°28′21.4″W / 33.254139°N 115.472611°W / 33.254139; -115.472611) is an artificial mountain north of Calipatria, California, near Slab City. It is made from adobe, straw, and thousands of gallons of paint. It was created by Leonard Knight to convey the message that "God Loves Everyone". Knight refused substantial donations of money and labor from supporters who wished to modify his message of universal love to favor or disfavor particular groups.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Bighorn Sheep at Palm Canyon in Anza-Borrego State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, portions of which are located in Imperial County, is the largest state park in California. 500 miles (800 km) of dirt roads and twelve wilderness areas and miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the Colorado Desert. The park is named after Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish name borrego, or bighorn sheep. The park features washes, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti and sweeping vistas. Visitors may also have the chance to see roadrunner, golden eagles, kit foxes, mule deer and bighorn sheep as well as iguanas, chuckwallas and the red diamond rattlesnake.

Fossil Canyon and Painted Gorge

Located near Ocotillo, California in the Coyote Mountains, Fossil Canyon and the surrounding area is a great place for rock hounding and fossil hunting. The fossils here are not dinosaurs, but ancient shells, coral, and oysters from the Miocene epoch when the area was underwater.

The Painted Gorge, 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.

Imperial NWR

Mesquite point
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 (60 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 with temperatures of 116–120 °F 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 and the eight monument History of Humanity. The History of the United States of America Dedication is on Washington's Birthday 2014. The History of California is being edited. Smaller monuments include the Felicity Stone (sm), a Rosetta Stone for the future located at the center of the History of Humanity monuments. The Museum of History in Granite is a candidate as a World Heritage Site. In 2016 this museum will dedicate a granite monument for the History of California.


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 slighy twice the size in total square miles as the State of Delaware.

The county is in the Colorado Desert, an extension of the larger Sonoran Desert.

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.

The Chocolate Mountains are located east of the Salton Sea, and extend in a northwest-southeast direction for approximately 60 miles (97 km).

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 northern-most 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.

National protected areas



Places by population, race, and income

Places by population and race
Place Type Population White Other
Asian Black or African
Native American
Hispanic or Latino
(of any race)
Bombay Beach CDP 459 69.7% 0.0% 0.0% 30.3% 0.0% 0.0%
Brawley City 26,645 78.0% 16.2% 0.9% 4.2% 0.7% 80.1%
Calexico City 40,378 64.4% 34.1% 1.0% 0.2% 0.3% 96.4%
Calipatria City 7,292 66.8% 21.1% 1.5% 9.0% 1.7% 75.5%
Desert Shores CDP 1,104 94.4% 5.6% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 86.3%
El Centro City 44,206 65.1% 28.6% 2.6% 3.1% 0.7% 79.6%
Heber CDP 6,008 57.7% 39.0% 0.0% 0.0% 3.2% 98.6%
Holtville City 6,088 68.0% 29.0% 1.0% 0.4% 1.6% 80.5%
Imperial City 18,206 76.4% 17.5% 2.3% 2.4% 1.4% 76.1%
Niland CDP 1,112 86.7% 8.7% 0.0% 1.2% 3.4% 61.7%
Ocotillo CDP 253 98.8% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 1.2% 7.1%
Palo Verde CDP 171 73.0% 22.8% 1.0% 3.0% 1.0% 19.0%
Salton City CDP 3,768 77.2% 20.0% 0.0% 2.8% 0.0% 47.9%
Salton Sea Beach CDP 598 63.0% 10.2% 1.8% 0.0% 24.9% 53.8%
Seeley CDP 1,683 79.8% 17.8% 0.0% 2.4% 0.0% 79.1%
Westmorland City 2,714 90.7% 6.2% 0.0% 1.1% 2.0% 87.9%
Winterhaven CDP 493 50.9% 5.9% 10.8% 0.0% 32.5% 81.5%
Places by population and income
Place Type Population Per capita income Median household income Median family income
Bombay Beach CDP 459 $12,439 $19,375 $24,063
Brawley City 26,645 $17,709 $36,233 $43,328
Calexico City 40,378 $14,317 $35,988 $39,129
Calipatria City 7,292 $11,559 $35,030 $37,381
Desert Shores CDP 1,104 $11,610 $29,345 $29,732
El Centro City 44,206 $18,273 $38,297 $42,417
Heber CDP 6,008 $13,540 $45,044 $44,444
Holtville City 6,088 $20,749 $40,712 $42,188
Imperial City 18,017 $21,378 $57,152 $57,548
Niland CDP 1,112 $9,750 $14,883 $15,170
Ocotillo CDP 253 $15,254 $17,734 $20,625
Palo Verde CDP 171 $44,003 $59,676
Salton City CDP 3,768 $16,887 $32,925 $34,792
Salton Sea Beach CDP 598 $17,791 $27,375 $57,159
Seeley CDP 1,683 $14,126 $33,977 $44,063
Westmorland City 2,714 $13,179 $28,375 $30,804
Winterhaven CDP 493 $9,207 $35,074 $35,441


Historical population
Census Pop.
1910 12,591
1920 43,453 245.1%
1930 60,903 40.2%
1940 55,740 −8.5%
1950 61,175 9.8%
1960 71,105 16.2%
1970 74,492 4.8%
1980 93,110 25.0%
1990 109,303 17.4%
2000 143,361 31.2%
2010 174,528 21.7%
2020 179,702 3.0%
U.S. Decennial Census
1790–1960 1900–1990
1990–2000 2010–2015

The 2010 United States Census reported that Imperial County had a population of 174,528. The racial makeup of Imperial County was 102,553 (58.8%) White, 5,773 (3.3%) African American, 3,059 (1.8%) Native American, 2,843 (1.6%) Asian, 165 (0.1%) Pacific Islander, 52,413 (30.0%) from other races, and 7,722 (4.4%) from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 140,271 persons (80.4%).


As of the census of 2000, there were 142,361 people, 39,384 households, and 31,467 families residing in the county. The population density was 34 people per square mile (13/km2). There were 43,891 housing units at an average density of 10 per square mile (4/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 49.4% White, 4.0% Black or African American, 1.9% Native American, 2.0% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 39.1% from other races, and 3.7% from two or more races. 72.2% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race. 65.7% spoke Spanish at home, while 32.3% spoke only English.

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.

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.


CA 86 Salton City
State Route 86 north of Salton City

Major highways

  • I-8 (CA).svg Interstate 8
  • California 7.svg State Route 7
  • California 78.svg State Route 78
  • California 86.svg State Route 86
  • California 98.svg State Route 98
  • California 111.svg State Route 111
  • California 115.svg State Route 115
  • California 186.svg State Route 186

Imperial County is at the junction of one interstate, and three state highways. Radiating to the east and west are connections to the Arizona Sun Corridor and San Diego-Tijuana metropolitan area via Interstate 8, Blythe, and northern San Diego County via State Route 78, the Mexicali Valley via State Route 111, and the Coachella Valley, Inland Empire, and Los Angeles metropolitan area via State Route 86.

Public transportation

Imperial County is served by Greyhound Lines and Imperial Valley Transit buses. Through a partnership between Imperial County Transportation Commission (ICTC), the Yuma County Intergovernmental Public Transportation Authority (YCIPTA), and the Quechan Indian Tribe, Yuma County Area Transit buses serve portions of Imperial County and connects it to Yuma, Arizona. Amtrak trains on the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle route also travel through the county, but with no scheduled stops; the nearest stop is in Yuma, Arizona.


County owned

  • 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.

Municipal ownership

  • Brawley Municipal Airport is a public use general aviation airport, owned by and located in Brawley.
  • Calexico Airport is a public use general aviation field, owned by and located in Calexico. It is located 15 miles (24 km) south of Interstate 8 on State Route 111. It used in part to service maquiladora factories in nearby Mexicali.
  • Cliff Hatfield Memorial Airport is a public use general aviation airport, owned by and located in Calipatria.

Privately owned

  • Salton Sea Airport is a public use general aviation airport located in Salton City.
  • Douthitt Strip Airport is a private use facility in El Centro. It was formerly a military airfield.


  • Naval Air Facility El Centro is a U.S. Navy airfield in El Centro.



Census-designated places

Unincorporated communities

Population ranking

The population ranking of the following table is based on the 2010 census of Imperial County.

county seat

Rank City/Town/etc. Municipal type Population (2010 Census)
1 El Centro City 42,598
2 Calexico City 38,572
3 Brawley City 24,953
4 Imperial City 14,758
5 Calipatria City 7,705
6 Holtville City 5,939
7 Torres-Martinez Reservation AIAN 5,594
8 Heber CDP 4,275
9 Salton City CDP 3,763
10 Westmorland City 2,225
11 Fort Yuma Indian Reservation (partially in Yuma County, AZ) AIAN 2,189
12 Seeley CDP 1,739
13 Desert Shores CDP 1,104
14 Niland CDP 1,006
15 Salton Sea Beach CDP 422
16 Winterhaven CDP 394
17 Bombay Beach CDP 295
18 Ocotillo CDP 266
19 Palo Verde CDP 171

Area codes

442/760 – Covers all of the El Centro metropolitan area as well as Palm Springs, Oceanside, Bishop, Ridgecrest, Barstow, and Needles; northern San Diego County; and southeastern California, including much of the Mojave Desert and the Owens Valley. Area code 760 split from area code 619 on March 22, 1997 and was overlaid with area code 442 in 2009.

In popular culture

  • Scenes for the 2006 film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan were filmed in Imperial County, but were not used in the finished film.
  • The majority of Jarhead and The Salton Sea was filmed in the Imperial Valley.
  • Scenes from Top Gun were filmed at Naval Air Facility El Centro
  • Part of the film Independence Day takes place in the Imperial Valley.
  • Indie rock group Calexico glean their name from the Imperial Valley border town that adjoins Mexicali, Baja California of Mexico.
  • Imperial, by William T. Vollmann, published July 30, 2009, documents the history and culture of Imperial County, California. A companion volume of photographs was published August 18, 2009.
  • The film American Sniper was filmed in El Centro, CA in the fall of 2014.


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.

In 2016, Imperial County had the highest unemployment rate of any county in the United States, at 23.5%.

Images for kids

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Condado de Imperial para niños

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