NR 2003-14
June 2, 2003

Contact: Ed Wilson
Mark Oldfield
Don Drysdale
(916) 323-1886

More Than 90,000 Acres Urbanized from 1998-2000

SACRAMENTO – California has some of the most productive farmland in the world, but the pace at which the state’s land is being urbanized is accelerating, exceeding 90,000 acres between 1998 and 2000, according to a new report from the California Department of Conservation.

DOC’s Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program maps land-use change on 90 percent of the privately owned land in the state. It produces a biennial report to help decision-makers assess the status of California’s agricultural land and plan for the future.

California Farmland Conversion Report 1998-2000 shows that urban development increased by 30 percent, compared with the 1996-98 data. There were 91,258 new urban acres in the state, the most in a decade. Prime farmland accounted for 19 percent of the total. Other irrigated farmland comprised an additional 8 percent.

“California leads the nation in agricultural production and at the same time needs to create places to live and work for its ever-growing population,” Department of Conservation Director Darryl Young said. “This report is intended to help local policy makers decide how best to balance the needs of a growing economy and agriculture.”

Some of the highlights from the report:

  • Of the 48 counties involved in the survey -- those that do not have significant amounts of agriculture or lack modern soil surveys are omitted -- 29 had net decreases in irrigated acreage.

  • More than 10,000 acres were removed from irrigated farmland categories in Riverside, San Diego and Kern counties. It should be noted that farmland losses are not just due to urbanization, but also to conversion to low-density residential uses, ecological restoration projects, or long-term land idling. Farmland may be idled for a variety of reasons, including water, soil and economic factors.

  • Riverside and San Diego counties accounted for 29 percent of the new urban acreage; 15 new or expanded golf courses or golf course communities were developed in Riverside’s Coachella Valley alone.

  • Sacramento, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Sonoma and Placer counties accounted for an additional 28 percent of the newly urbanized land.

  • The counties with the highest proportion of urbanization on irrigated farmland were San Joaquin and Merced (80 and 84 percent, respectively).

  • Increases in irrigated acreage were reported in 19 counties. Vineyards accounted for 71 percent of the new irrigated acreage.

  • Five wine-grape counties –Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Napa – had a net increase in irrigated land totaling 42,775 acres from 1998-2000. Of the land brought into irrigated agriculture, only 32 percent is rated as Prime Farmland.

  • Counties reported that 188,510 acres of land – including 73,324 acres of prime farmland – have been committed to nonagricultural use in the future. Generally, this is land earmarked for development. In some cases, development, such as sewer installation, may already be underway.

California Farmland Conversion Report 1998-2000 details land conversion within a series of land-use categories, from Prime Farmland (land with the best physical characteristics to sustain long-term production of agricultural crops), to Urban and Built-Up Land (land occupied by structures at a density of at least one unit per 1.5 acres).

Over the past two years, DOC’s Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program issued land conversion data and maps for individual counties to local planning officials as work on those counties was completed. The report provides land conversion summaries at the regional and statewide level and includes the county-by-county information.

“This report clearly demonstrates the need for voluntary agricultural land conservation programs,” DOC Director Young said. “The state’s population is expected to grow to 50 million by 2025, and we must promote programs to protect farmland if California is to continue as a world leader in agricultural production.”

DOC’s Division of Land Resource Protection manages two such programs, the California Farmland Conservancy Program and the Williamson Act.

The Williamson Act, established in 1965, shields approximately 16 million agricultural and open space acres from development. The program provides tax incentives to landowners who voluntarily place land in Williamson Act contracts, which continuously restrict development for 10 years into the future until the landowner begins the process of exiting the restrictions.

The California Farmland Conservancy Program, in existence since 1996, provides grant funding for acquiring agricultural conservation easements. State grant funds are used in combination with federal and/or local funds to help local land trusts and other entities purchase conservation easements from willing landowners, thereby retiring the property’s development potential. The landowners retain ownership of the land, and it remains available for agricultural production permanently. The restriction against future development is held by the land trust, even if the land is sold. DOC accepts grant proposals year-round.

The Important Farmland Maps and Conversion Reports, which DOC has developed since 1984, are planning tools that complement the Williamson Act and California Farmland Conservancy programs. Hard copies of the report are available to the public at a cost of $15, which includes shipping and handling. To order, contact the Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program at (916) 324-0859, or by e-mail at

In addition to administering land conservation programs, the Department of Conservation studies and maps earthquakes and mineral resources in the state; ensures reclamation of land used for mining; administers the state's beverage container recycling program; and regulates oil, gas and geothermal wells.