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Water shortages lead to record farmland losses

Issue Date: April 27, 2011
By Kate Campbell

Even during a recession that slowed urbanization, the number of irrigated acres farmed in California dropped by a record amount—and analysts said water shortages had a lot to do with the decrease.

A new, two-year report from the state Department of Conservation shows that between 2006 and 2008, irrigated farmland in California decreased by a record amount: 317 square miles, or more than 203,000 acres.

The department manages two voluntary agricultural land conservation programs, the Williamson Act and the California Farmland Conservancy Program, and closely tracks agricultural land use.

The latest report, released last week, shows a slowdown from the record urbanization pace seen in the state during recent years. Even so, a record amount of irrigated farmland was idled, urbanized, or otherwise reclassified—30 percent more than the total farmland taken out of food production between 2004 and 2006. The report noted a decline of almost 100,000 acres of the highest-quality agricultural soils, known as prime farmland—also a record loss.

Land idling was particularly noteworthy in the southern San Joaquin Valley: Five of the region's eight counties saw at least 10,000 acres idled. More than 56,000 acres were idled in Fresno County alone.

"Most of that was related to water—either to drought conditions or to high salinity," said Molly Penberth, manager of the department's Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program. "Because irrigation ceased on thousands of those acres, most of that land was reclassified to, for example, grazing land."

"This report shows again that without water, farmers can't farm," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said. "It's always disturbing to see productive farmland forced out of production, and these figures underline the toll from water shortages caused by drought, regulations and court decisions."

Wenger noted that fallowing of farmland results in lost jobs, lower tax revenues and greater reliance on government support for hard-hit communities.

At the same time as water shortages forced land out of production, the Department of Conservation noted a 29 percent decrease in the amount of land being converted to urban uses, a figure "easily explained by the economic slowdown, " Penberth said.

In each of the previous two reports, covering 2002 to 2004 and 2004 to 2006, the mapping program catalogued about 102,000 acres of newly urbanized land. In the latest report, only 72,548 acres of new urbanization were mapped—the lowest total since the late 1990s.

A little more than one-fifth of that development occurred in Riverside County. The other top 10 counties seeing farmland losses to urbanization included Kern, San Bernardino, San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Placer, San Joaquin, Sacramento and Contra Costa.

The mapping program, which began in 1982, has grown to cover about 98 percent of the privately owned land in the state. The program has completed 12 mapping cycles. In that time, the department said, more than 1.3 million acres of agricultural land—an area larger than Merced County—have been converted to other uses or fallowed.

"Although California continues to lead the nation in agricultural production by a wide margin, the amount of outstanding farm and grazing land being developed or idled is something we need to be aware of," said the department's acting director, Derek Chernow. "Agricultural land is a limited natural resource, just like clean water, minerals and hydrocarbons, so it's important that we be good stewards in planning how we use it."

Penberth said the information in the new report will be used in a variety of ways.

"The data is used in elements of some county and city general plans, in environmental impact documents and in regional studies on agricultural land conversion," she said.

The maps classify agricultural land under one of several categories based on soil quality and irrigation status: prime farmland, farmland of statewide importance, unique farmland or farmland of local importance. Other categories include grazing land, urban and built-up land, other land, and water. The program tracks changes in the acreage of each type of land; provides data on a statewide, regional and county level; and provides a field report about what's happening in each county.

New agriculture was noted in some areas, typically with almond and pistachio orchards replacing grasslands in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada and the eastern flank of the coast range. Some formerly idled land in the Antelope Valley of Kern and Los Angeles counties was used to grow carrots and other crops.

"Agriculture is a major component of the state's economy," said Brian Leahy, head of the Department of Conservation Division of Land Resource Protection. "Yet, over time, we've noted a conversion rate of about one square mile of agricultural land every four days. The thing about land-use change and the urbanization of agricultural land is that it's often subtle. It doesn't happen all at once, and it's so common that you barely notice it. But one day, you look around and say, 'Where did all the farms go?'"

The entire report is available online at

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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