NR 2009-21
November 30, 2009

Contact: Don Drysdale
             Carrie Reinsimar
             (916) 323-1886

View a time lapse animation of land-use change in Riverside County

SACRAMENTO – Nearly 18,000 acres were removed from agricultural use in the Inland Empire from 2006-2008, according to a new California Department of Conservation (DOC) report. The data is intended to help decision-makers and planners at all levels of government in their efforts to balance the needs of growth with the needs of the agricultural community.

“While there’s a tremendous amount of farmland and grazing land in the Inland Empire, our data shows that more agricultural land continues to be converted to other uses there than anywhere else in the state, a trend that spans nearly a decade,” said Brian Leahy, who heads DOC’s Division of Land Resource Protection (DLRP). “To put 18,000 acres in perspective, that’s about 28 square miles, an area about the size of the community of Temecula.”

DLRP’s Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program (FMMP) issues a California Farmland Conversion Report about land-use change in California every two years. The biennial mapping survey covers approximately 96 percent of the privately owned land in the state (48.2 million acres) in 49 counties. Counties without significant agricultural production or lacking modern soil maps are excluded.

The Inland Empire was surveyed as part of the 2006-2008 mapping cycle. The FMMP issues data to individual counties as work is completed locally and local agencies use the maps in the planning process to conserve important agricultural resources. The statewide report provides land conversion summaries at the regional and statewide level and includes the county-by-county information.

“California’s agricultural economy still leads the nation by a wide margin, because our farmers and ranchers are doing more with less,” DOC Director Bridgett Luther said. “But good soil – and our prime farmland is as good as it gets for growing things – is a limited resource that we must work to protect.”

According to the FMMP, 11,173 acres – including 5,569 acres of prime farmland – were removed from ariculture use in Riverside County in the 2006-08 mapping cycle. Meanwhile, the county gained 15,139 acres of urban land, well above the biennial average of 12,432 acres between 1984 and 2006. Homes, golf courses, commercial and community facilities constituted the new urban uses. Land idling continued to be common in the county; nearly 5,500 acres were removed from irrigated agricultural categories to grazing uses. Water availability and agricultural market conditions drove the fallowing.

In San Bernardino County, 6,781 acres – including 2,957 acres of prime farmland – were removed from agricultural use. New urban land totaled 7,005 acres between 2006 and 2008, a significant decrease from the county’s historic biennial average of 9,030 acres. Victorville alone had more than 1,000 acres of newly noted homes and commercial developments. Fontana, the City of San Bernardino, Ontario, and other south county cities experienced the completion of residential developments, warehouse complexes, parks, and golf courses.

As of 2008, there were 23,497 irrigated acres remaining in San Bernardino County, only about 38 percent of what had existed when FMMP mapping began in 1984. In Riverside County, there were 204,722 acres of irrigated land in 2008, about 67 percent of the 1984 total.

The FMMP’s latest maps of the Inland Empire detail land conversion within a series of 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).  Land-use change is determined using a combination of sources, including analysis of aerial imagery, a computer mapping system, public review, and field reconnaissance. That data is combined with soil quality data to produce maps and the report.

“The thing about land-use change and the urbanization of agricultural land is that it’s often subtle,” said Molly Penberth, head of the FMMP. “It doesn’t happen all at once and is so common you barely notice. But over time, you look around and say, ‘Where did the farms go?’ ”

DOC provides landowners and local governments agricultural conservation incentives by managing two voluntary programs, the Williamson Act and the California Farmland Conservancy Program (CFCP).

The CFCP provides funding to purchase the development rights on property from willing landowners. Begun in 1996, the CFCP has provided $65 million in funding to permanently shield 42,000 acres of the state’s best and most vulnerable agricultural land from development.

The Williamson Act has been the state’s premier agricultural land protection program since 1965. Under the program, private landowners limit their property to agricultural and compatible open-space uses under minimum 10-year rolling term contracts. In return, restricted parcels are assessed for property tax purposes at a rate consistent with their actual use, rather than potential market value.