Aerial photos chart vanishing farmland
El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties saw dramatic
By Mary Lynne Vellinga -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PDT Thursday, August 19, 2004
Figures released by the state Wednesday confirmed
what any longtime Sacramento-area resident has
probably noticed - we've been paving over a lot of
farmland around here.
Infrared, aerial photographs compiled by the
California Department of Conservation provide a
full-color picture of what happened in the
six-county region between 2000 and 2002. During that
period, 12,614 acres of farmland and pasture were
urbanized, up slightly from the 12,155 acres lost
between 1998 and 2000.
El Dorado, Placer and Yolo counties experienced
dramatic increases in the amount of land being
converted from farmland to subdivisions between 2000
and 2002, while the pace of urbanization in
Sacramento County slowed somewhat.
The amount of farmland lost in Yolo County more than
tripled, from 353 acres to 1,260 acres. The jump
stemmed largely from residential building in Davis,
Woodland and West Sacramento. In Placer County,
Roseville alone added 1,300 acres of new housing and
commercial development in the two-year period.
Conservation Department Director Darryl Young
unveiled the figures at a news conference staged
alongside a drainage canal in North Natomas, an area
composed predominantly of prime farmland that is
rapidly turning over to subdivisions.
On one side of the drainage canal sits the city
of Sacramento, where the landscape is fast being
blanketed with houses. The other side, which lies
within the unincorporated county, remains rural.
Because of the two-year lag in the data, most of
the development in North Natomas was not captured in
the figures released Wednesday. But Young displayed
more recent aerial photos showing how the landscape
in North Natomas changed between 1999 and late 2003.
The new photo contained a lot less red and a lot
more mottled gray, indicating conversion from farms
to houses. Subdivisions, some surrounding artificial
lakes, have replaced the agricultural fields that
dominated the picture just four years earlier.
"All these homes that are here now were not here
in 1999," Young said, gesturing toward the wall of
tract houses in front of him. The maps, he said,
"Confirm what you know. But in a visual way."
Young said his department is not making any
judgments about whether growth is good or bad. But
he said the farmland conversion maps are a valuable
tool for local decision-makers to use when
considering whether to approve development.
"You can't have smart growth without smart
information," he said.
The maps also show different grades of farmland,
ranging from prime soil to pastureland. They can
also illustrate whether a proposed development is
contiguous to an existing urban area, or whether it
is isolated in the middle of fields.
Young said his department uses the maps to help
decide when to use state funds to buy agricultural
easements. Such easements preserve land in farming
for perpetuity. The Legislature created them in an
effort to maintain farmland that might otherwise be
"You can build houses anywhere, but you can't
grow crops anywhere," Young said. "This valley has
some of the best farmland in the state."
Farmland is also disappearing from crop
production statewide for other reasons besides
suburban-style development. Such land falls into a
catch-all category of "other," but can include such
uses as habitat preserves, rural residential
development, mining and dairy farming.