Colorado Desert BioregionThe Colorado Desert -- An Overview

The Colorado Desert Bioregion in the southeastern corner of California extends from the Mexican border north to San Bernardino County and the southern edge of the Joshua Tree National Park, east to the Colorado River and Arizona, and west into Riverside and San Diego counties. This agriculturally rich bioregion is semi arid, but heavily irrigated.

Location, Cities, People

With a population of about 375,000, according to 1990 census figures, the Colorado Desert is the second least populous of the ten bioregions. Only the Modoc Bioregion has fewer people. The bioregion encompasses all of Imperial County, the southeastern portion of Riverside County, the eastern end of San Bernardino County, and the eastern portion of San Diego County. Its most prominent cities are Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, El Centro, and the smaller, but landmark communities of Blythe, Coachella, and Calexico. The bioregion is home to the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation in Imperial County and Arizona, the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Riverside County, and the Campo and Manzanita Indian Reservations in San Diego County. Imperial County has the state's lowest median family income.

Major highways are Interstate 10 in Riverside County, Interstate 8 in Imperial and San Diego counties, and State Highways 111 and 115 in Imperial County.

Tourist Attractions, Industries

Some of the bioregion's best attractions are its natural resources. Picacho State Recreation Area on the Arizona border, operated by the state Department of Parks and Recreation, offers boat rides on the Colorado River from which can be seen migratory cormorants, mergansers, white pelicans, and wintering bald eagles, to name a few species. Trails into the rugged backcountry lead to the habitat of desert bighorn sheep, feral burros, golden eagles, and nesting prairie falcons.

The Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge features open water, salt marshes, freshwater ponds, and desert scrub, which attract nearly 400 bird species, including great roadrunners, Gambel's quail, Albert's towhees, endangered Yuma clapper rails, egrets, plovers, northern pintails, Canada geese, snow geese, rough-legged hawks, peregrine falcon, terns, yellow-headed blackbirds, hooded orioles, and white-faced ibises. The refuge is operated by the state Departments of Fish and Game and Parks and Recreation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Dos Palmas Preserve, near Indio, owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, offers a lush desert oasis with a restored wetlands that accommodates endangered desert pupfish. The preserve attracts an array of wildlife, such as hooded orioles, warblers, snowy egrets, ospreys, American avocets, and horned lizards. The western fringe of the Imperial National Wildlife Refuge, located mostly in Arizona, is also in this bioregion.

Imperial County is one of California's top-ranking agricultural counties and a producer of cotton. Military installations include the Chocolate Mountains Naval Aerial Gunnery Range and the Naval Desert Test Range.

Climate and Geography

The Colorado Desert is the western extension of the Sonoran desert that covers southern Arizona and northwestern Mexico. It is a desert of much lower elevation than the Mojave Desert to the north, and much of the land lies below 1,000 feet elevation. Mountain peaks rarely exceed 3,000 feet. Common habitat includes sandy desert, scrub, palm oasis, and desert wash. Summers are hot and dry, and winters are cool and moist.

The Colorado River flows along the entire eastern boundary of the Colorado Desert bioregion on its way to Yuma, Ariz., where the two states and Mexico come together. The only other river of significant size in this bioregion is the polluted New River, which flows from Mexico into the Salton Sea, the region's largest body of water, on the border of Imperial and Riverside counties. The Salton Sea was created in 1905 when the Colorado River broke through an irrigation project and flooded a saline lake bed, creating an inland sea, which now lies about 235 feet below sea level and is some 35 miles long and 15 miles wide.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park, located mostly in eastern San Diego County, but jutting into Imperial County, is the bioregion's largest recreation area, covering 600,000 acres. It offers more than 225 bird species and dozens of mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Bighorn sheep can be seen there, as well as thrashers and owls.

Plants and Wildlife

Other species in the Colorado Desert are Yuma antelope ground squirrels, white-winged doves, muskrats, southern mule deer, coyotes, bobcats, and raccoons. Rare animals include desert pupfish, flat-tailed horned lizard, prairie falcon, Andrew's dune scarab beetle, Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard, Le Conte's thrasher, black-tailed gnatcatcher, and California leaf-nosed bat.

Rare plants include Orcutt's woody aster, Orocopia sage, foxtail cactus, Coachella Valley milk vetch, and crown of thorns.

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