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Imperial County Struggles With New River, Air Pollution, Pesticides

C alifornia’s Imperial County is the poorest in the state, with at least one of every four workers unemployed; median income of those who have jobs ranks last among the state’s 58 counties.

Known for farm fields and hot weather, Imperial is the southernmost county in California. It borders Mexico and Arizona and lies east of San Diego County. Agriculture and border patrol/immigration provide major jobs, and at least 75% of the 164,000 people in the county are Hispanic. Imperial also is a young area, with nearly a third of residents being age 18 or younger.22

Environmental issues in the county center on three areas:

  • Air quality and how it affects rising rates of asthma in the area.

  • Water quality of the New River (that flows northward from Mexico into California) and the related health effects from the polluted water.

  • Exposure to pesticides from historic and current pesticide use on farm fields.


22 U.S. Census Bureau, “State and County Quick Facts,” 2009, at http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/ states/06/06025.html.

The environmental justice and health advocacy group Comité Cívico del Valle notes the region of Imperial and its neighboring Baja California, Mexico, city of Mexicali have grown significantly in recent years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population in Imperial County grew 15.2% from 2000 to 2008, while the population increase for California as a whole was just 8.5%.

This means more people than ever are being exposed to “one of the worst particulate matter pollution problems in California, and arguably the most contaminated river (the New River) in the U.S.,” says Jose Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico. (emphasis added.)

Most of Imperial Valley is below sea level, including all of its major population centers,” he continued. “Due to this fact, a lot of dust and other airborne pollutants hover in the air and do not move out of the valley. The dust, pesticides and smog from burning (agricultural) fields lead to increased risk of asthma and cancer in the local residents.”


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