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City of El Centro
—  City  —
Imperial County Courthouse in El Centro
Location in Imperial County and the state of California
City of El Centro is located in the USA
City of El Centro
Location in the United States
Coordinates: 32°47′31″N 115°33′47″W / 32.79194°N 115.56306°W / 32.79194; -115.56306Coordinates: 32°47′31″N 115°33′47″W / 32.79194°N 115.56306°W / 32.79194; -115.56306
Country United States United States
State California California
Incorporated April 16, 1908
 - Total 24.9 km2 (9.6 sq mi)
 - Land 24.8 km2 (9.6 sq mi)
 - Water 0.1 km2 (0 sq mi)
Elevation -12 m (-39 ft)
Population (2006)
 - Total 40,563
 Density 1,519.5/km2 (3,941.1/sq mi)
Time zone Pacific (PST) (UTC-8)
 - Summer (DST) PDT (UTC-7)
ZIP codes 92243-92244
Area code(s) 760
FIPS code 06-21782
GNIS feature ID 1656501

El Centro (formerly, Cabarker)[1], is Spanish for "the center". The name is fitting, because it is the core urban area and principal city of the El Centro metropolitan area which encompasses all of Imperial County. The city is the county seat of Imperial County, the largest city in the Imperial Valley and the east anchor of the Southern Border. El Centro is also the largest American city to lie entirely below sea level (- 50 feet). The city is conveniently near the global cities of San Diego and Los Angeles as well as placed between the major cities of Phoenix and San Diego.

Founded in 1906 W. F. Holt and C.A. Barker purchased the land on which El Centro was eventually built for about forty dollars an acre and invested $100,000 in improvements. As one historian of Valley life put it, "in only five months El Centro went from a barley field to a city...".

Fast forward to modern times and El Centro is the center of one of Southern California's most promising new commercial and industrial regions. It is home to retail, transportation, wholesale, and agricultural industries. There are also two international border crossings nearby for commercial and noncommercial vehicles. The city's population was 37,835 at the 2000 census. The 2006 population is 40,563.



El Centro is located at 32°47′31″N 115°33′47″W / 32.79194°N 115.56306°W / 32.79194; -115.56306.[2]

The Imperial Valley, as seen from the Space Shuttle. North is to the upper right. The Salton Sea is at the center. The US-Mexican border is a diagonal in the lower left.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 9.6 square miles, (24.9 km²), of which 9.6 square miles, (24.8 km²), of it is land and 0.04 square miles, (0.1 km²), of it is water.

El Centro is located in the Imperial Valley(considered locally as synonymous with Imperial County). The city is 50 feet below sea level and the largest city in the United States below sea level. The Imperial Valley is in the Colorado Desert, an extension of the larger Sonoran Desert.

The agriculture industry's demand for water is supplied by canals diverting water from the nearby Colorado River. The Salton Sea was created after a 1905 flood from the Colorado River.[3]

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.


Juan Bautista de Anza Bezerra Nieto

Spanish explorer Melchior Díaz was one of the first Europeans to visit the area around El Centro and Imperial Valley in 1540. The explorer Juan Bautista de Anza also explored the area in 1776[4] (an elementary school in El Centro now bears his name). 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 acquifer areas occurred in the early 1800s (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.[citation needed]

Originally part of San Diego County, the Imperial Valley was settled by farmers once water from the Colorado River was diverted via canals to irrigate the desert valley floor.[citation needed]

In 1906, the land on which El Centro was later built was purchased by W. F. Holt and C.A. Barker.[5]

By 1907 Imperial County was incorporated into California and by then much of the valley was successfully irrigated.[citation needed]

Before the town began, the railroad had established a station and named the place Cabarker.[1] The name honored C.A. Barker, a friend of the landowner.[1] The first post office in El Centro opened in 1905.[1]

The City of El Centro was incorporated on April 16, 1908. By 1910, the population of the city had reached 1,610. By 1920 it was 5,646. One reason for this rapid growth was El Centro's becoming the county seat of Imperial Valley.[5]

Population growth was slow, but accelerated in the 1930s, again in the World War II era (1940s) despite the city was hard hit by a 7.1 earthquake in July 1940.[citation needed]

By the mid-1940s, El Centro had become the second largest city in the Imperial Valley, with a population of about 11,000 people. El Centro had also become the location of the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) administrative offices.[5]

Agriculture has been an important industry within El Centro since the 1940s, because of its strategic location near rail lines and Highway 80 and 99 - more than 35 growers and shippers still operate in El Centro. However, by the early 1980s the two largest employment sectors in El Centro were Government and Wholesale/Retail Trade, reflecting El Centro's emerging role as a regional administrative and commercial center.[5]

Sites of Interest

The nearby Algodones Dunes, the largest dune field in the US, draws thousands of visitors each year, mainly for off-road driving. The Salton Sea lies 30 miles north of El Centro, but water sport enthusiasts head to the Colorado River, 50 miles to the east near Yuma, Arizona. The El Centro Naval Air Station 10 miles to the west is home to the annual Blue Angels flight maneuvering event. Stark Field is home of a minor league baseball team El Centro Imperials of the Arizona Summer League. Mexico (the border city of Mexicali, Baja California) is 10 miles away, which offers big city amenities like museums, a zoo and a sports convention center.


El Centro has an arid climate and is the southern-most desert city in the US with an elevation below sea-level. El Centro has over 350 days of sunshine and under 3 inches (76 mm) of rain annually. Winter temperatures are in the mid 70s to mid 80s with over-night lows in the low 50s to mid 40s. During summer days, the dry, desert heat can push temperatures well into the 100s, while the nights stay in the low 80s to mid 70s. Average annual humidity is 24%.[citation needed] Snow is almost totally unknown in the town, except for a very brief falling of sleet mixed with hail during a shower in December 1967.

Climate data for El Centro, California
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 90
Average high °F (°C) 70
Average low °F (°C) 41
Record low °F (°C) 18
Precipitation inches (mm) 0.51
Source: [6] December, 2009


Aerial photo of part of the farmlands, desert, and mountains of Imperial County

As of 2009 the employment of El Centro residents is dominated by the local government, California state government, and federal government. Two nearby prisons and the U.S. Border Patrol provide employment; The Economist states that the prisons and border patrol were "relatively untouched" by the late-2000s recession. The El Centro area has many farming plots, where carrots, lettuce, and other crops are produced, and therefore the El Centro economy is subject to seasonal variations like other farming areas. Between November and March in winter periods, El Centro-area farmers harvest lettuce for $8–10 per hour. During March the harvest moves to the north and is no longer in El Centro; in previous eras farmers migrated, while in the 2000s many collect unemployment benefits during the summer.[7]

El Centro is surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland that has 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.[8]

Being the commercial center of Imperial County, fifty percent of the jobs in the El Centro come from the service and retail sector.[8]

A recent growth in the interest of Imperial County as a filming location, has spurred growth in servicing this industry.[8] Due to its desert environment and proximity to Los Angeles, California, movies are sometimes filmed in the sand dunes outside the agricultural portions of the Imperial 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.[citation needed]


El Centro during the late-2000s recession

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of April 30, 2009 the El Centro area had a 25.0% unemployment rate, the highest for a Metropolitan Area in the country.[9] By August of that year, El Centro's unemployment rate was 27.5%, three times the overall United States unemployment rate of 9.7%. The Economist stated that the city is not the "centre of the Great Recession" like the figure would appear to indicate. While El Centro has a seasonal farming economy, there is still a fixed "baseline" unemployment at 12%. Timothy Kelly, the head of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation, estimated that between 40,000 to 60,000 residents of Mexicali work in El Centro. The Economist added that there are likely many El Centro residents who work in Mexicali and collect unemployment benefits in El Centro; Ruben Duran, the city manager of El Centro, said that if the Mexicali jobs were factored into the employment rate, El Centro would have a normal employment rate. Francisca German, the manager of a job search agency called One Stop, said that about 3,000 people per month come into her agency; she says that some make a genuine effort to find jobs, while many do not have motivation to actually find a job, but to instead show proof that they tried to find a job. Kelly stated that unemployment fraud does not account for all of the issues with the El Centro area; he said that many residents have a lack of education and a lack of English language proficiency, so some of them cannot find jobs. The Economist added that the collapse of the housing market eliminated some construction jobs; the magazine countered that the scenario is true in many places in the United States.[7] In December 2008 listed as #5 on's list of "The Top 10 Places in America Where Homes are Losing their Value Fastest" with 31.4% of homeowners owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.[10] A national report on the effects of the "Great recession" of 2008/09 has found El Centro and the Imperial Valley in the top 5 poorest medium-sized cities in the U.S. in poverty and unemployment rates.[11]


Some residents from El Centro stated in a 2009 The Economist issue that El Centro is, as stated by the magazine, "a boring place." In the winter residents race on nearby sand dunes using four wheel drive buggies. During the summer residents spend time indoors instead of outside. Spanish is a dominant language among residents and over the radio. Many area residents live in both the United States and Mexico and go across the border frequently.[7]


As of the census[12] of 2000, there were 37,835 people, 11,439 households, and 8,910 families residing in the city. The population density was 3,950.2 people per square mile (1,524.9/km²). There were 12,263 housing units at an average density of 1,280.3/sq mi (494.2/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 46.86% White, 3.16% Black or African American, 0.98% Native American, 3.50% Asian, 0.10% Pacific Islander, 41.68% from other races, and 3.73% from two or more races. 74.58% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.

There were 11,439 households out of which 47.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 53.9% were married couples living together, 18.7% had a female householder with no husband present, and 22.1% were non-families. 18.8% of all households were made up of individuals and 7.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 3.23 and the average family size was 3.71.

In the city the population was spread out with 33.6% under the age of 18, 9.7% from 18 to 24, 28.9% from 25 to 44, 18.5% from 45 to 64, and 9.3% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 30 years. For every 100 females there were 96.6 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 93.5 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $33,161, and the median income for a family was $36,910. Males had a median income of $36,753 versus $24,514 for females. The per capita income for the city was $13,874. About 20.6% of families and 22.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 29.5% of those under age 18 and 14.8% of those age 65 or over.

In 2009 the Latinos in El Centro mainly consisted of dual citizens and permanent resident card (green card) holders. Illegal immigrants tended to go through Imperial County instead of staying in Imperial County.[7]


Within its boundary, there are three school districts - McCabe Union Elementary School District, El Centro School District and The Central Union High School District.[13]

Many residents of Mexicali take their children to El Centro schools.[7]

El Centro has 11 Elementary schools, 3 Middle/Junior High schools and 3 High Schools:

Elementary Schools

  • De Anza Magnet School [14]
  • Desert Garden Elementary School [14]
  • Harding Elementary School [14]
  • McCabe Elementary School [15]
  • McKinley Elementary School [14]
  • Margaret Hedrick Elementary School [14] (named after a woman who had been teaching and working in schools for 55 years, 35 of them in the El Centro School system).[16]
  • Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School [14]
  • Meadows Elementary School [13]
  • Lincoln Elementary School [14]
  • Sunflower Elementary [14]
  • Washington Elementary School [14]

Middle and Junior High Schools

High Schools

The Central Union High School District includes two four-year comprehensive high schools(Central Union and Southwest) and one alternative education school(Desert Oasis). The school district's 3,450 students are supported by more than 350 certified and classified staff. The District is governed by a five member Board of Trustees.[8]

  • Central Union High School [17] (Central Union was established near the time when the city was established celebrated its 100th year in 2008.)
  • Desert Oasis High School [17]
  • Southwest High School [17]

Colleges and Universities

Opportunities to attend college are available through Imperial Valley College, a local 2-year college, and an extension of San Diego State University located in Calexico, CA.

Residents seeking a four year university must travel outside the county, usually to one of the universities in nearby San Diego, CA[8]


Freeways and highways

There are three major highways that serve El Centro. Interstate 8 goes through the southern portion of the city. Going west, it takes you to San Diego, and going east, it takes you to Yuma, AZ. California State Route 86 goes north to Brawley, CA,Riverside County, and the Palm Springs area. It goes south to eventually merge with California State Route 111. Hwy 111 goes north to Brawley, Riverside County, and the Palm Springs area. It goes south to Calexico, CA and Mexicali, Mexico.


Imperial County Airport is located in nearby Imperial. Service is subsidized by the Essential Air Service program.[18] The nearest large international airports are San Diego International Airport and Mexicali International Airport.


El Centro is operated by a council/manager form of government. The members of the City Council also sit as the Community Development Commission (Commission) and Redevelopment Agency (Agency) governing boards. The City Manager is empowered as the Executive Director of the Commission and Agency.[8]

In the state legislature El Centro is located in the 40th Senate District, represented by Democrat Denise Moreno Ducheny, and in the 80th Assembly District, represented by Democrat Manuel Perez. Federally, El Centro is located in California's 51st congressional district, which has a Cook PVI of D +7[19] and is represented by Democrat Bob Filner.


  1. ^ a b c d Durham, David L. (1998). California's Geographic Names: A Gazetteer of Historic and Modern Names of the State. Quill Driver Books. p. 1416. ISBN 9781884995149. 
  2. ^ U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: El Centro, California
  3. ^ "An Unbelievable Man-Made Disaster That Almost Could Not Be Undone". Retrieved 2009-08-03. 
  4. ^ "De Anza Trail". Retrieved 2009-08-03. 
  5. ^ a b c d "History of the City of El Centro". City of El Centro. Retrieved 2009-07-13. 
  6. ^ "Average Weather for El Centro, CA - Temperature and Precipitation". Retrieved December, 2009. 
  7. ^ a b c d e "Benefits and the border." The Economist. August 20, 2009. Retrieved on September 12, 2009.
  8. ^ a b c d e f "El Centro Chamber of Commerce". Retrieved 2009-07-31. 
  9. ^ "Best and Worst Markets to Find a Job". 2008-10-31. Retrieved 2008-11-01. 
  10. ^ Woolsey, Matt (12 December 2008). "In Depth: Where U.S. Homeowners Are Losing Value Fastest". Forbes. Retrieved 2009-07-13. 
  11. ^ America's most impoverished cities|date=22 October 2009| real estate news|accessdate=2009-22-10
  12. ^ "American FactFinder". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 2008-01-31. 
  13. ^ a b "El Centro Chamber of Commerce - Education". Retrieved 2009-07-13. 
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "El Centro Elementary School District". Retrieved 2009-07-13. 
  15. ^ a b "McCabe Union School District". Retrieved 2009-07-13. 
  16. ^ "Hedrick School - Who was Margaret Hedrick?". Retrieved 2009-07-13. 
  17. ^ a b c "Central Union High School District". Retrieved 2009-07-13. 
  18. ^ "ipl". Retrieved 2009-07-31. 
  19. ^ "Will Gerrymandered Districts Stem the Wave of Voter Unrest?". Campaign Legal Center Blog. Retrieved 2007-10-20. 

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