California’s COVID-19 epicenter is Imperial County, an impoverished agricultual oasis with an unusual history.
Even as a boy, I knew there was something unusual, even other-worldly, about living in the Imperial Valley.
We seemed so isolated, more connected to Mexico than California. In fact the valley’s largest city was Mexicali, just across the border, and we’d often walk across for cheap restaurant food. It was an hours-long, 100-mile automobile drive through treeless, boulder-strewn mountains to San Diego, the nearest California city of any size.
To the east, a sea of sand dunes separated us from the Colorado River and Arizona. There was a paved highway through the dunes, but one could still see pieces of the old plank road that pioneers laid over the dunes, and a ramshackle fort built to film Foreign Legion movies.
Everyone was aware that the Imperial Valley lay several hundred feet below sea level — nearly as deep as Death Valley with the 120-degree summer days to prove it.
As an adult, I learned why the Imperial Valley felt so different. Imperial County was the last California county to be formed, breaking away from San Diego in 1907 because, in those days, it was almost impossible for valley farmers to visit the county seat.
They had been attracted to the valley by the former seabed’s rich soil and the weather for year-around cultivation, but needed water to make it bloom. Early water diversions from the Colorado River got it started but the valley came into its own as an agricultural powerhouse in the 1940s after the Bureau of Reclamation built the Imperial Dam and the All-American Canal began carrying Colorado water by gravity into the valley.
While Southern California cities also tapped the Colorado for water, Imperial’s early action put it at the head of the line. Today, the Imperial Irrigation District could be characterized as the OPEC of water, legally entitled to about 75% of California’s share of Colorado water.
Imperial Dam also generated electricity, which made the irrigation district a power utility and the valley’s center of political power.
For many decades, a relative few white farmers who tilled vast acreages of winter vegetables, cotton and alfalfa held that power. Ultimately, however, demography shifted power to Latinos, the sons and daughters of field workers from Mexico who are today 80% of Imperial County’s population.
Changing demography didn’t change Imperial County’s basic nature. It exists primarily to grow food and fiber with little economic diversity and always ranks high on California’s lists of unemployment and poverty.
Imperial has another distinction these days — the epicenter of California’s COVID-19 pandemic. Its infection rate is six times as high as California’s as a whole and victims are overwhelming its two hospitals.
Imperial’s dilemma is exacerbated by two other factors. Some of its patients are coming from Mexicali and Imperial has fewer than a third of the physicians, relative to population, as California as a whole.
Imperial has been sending its excess COVID-19 victims to other counties but “As other counties reopened and their own beds are being used, it is tougher and tougher to find beds,” Dr. Katherine Staats, Imperial’s emergency medicine director, told CalMatters.
Riverside County, just to the north, has also been hit very hard in the second wave of infection and is using 90% of its hospital capacity, so can’t take more than a few Imperial patients.
If there’s an upside to Imperial’s plight, it may be that the nearly 40 million Californians who don’t live there might become aware of its importance to the food chain and the endemic conditions, especially poverty, that made it so vulnerable.