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Overview: Rural Sprawl/Exurban Development

The Sacramento Watershed is in the midst of transformation from an agricultural to an urban economy, with great ecosystem impacts and implications. The primary driver of this shift is the economic conditions that generate suburban and exurban sprawl, amidst a set of natural resource conditions that make it possible.

History of sprawl gives a brief overview of sprawl over past centuries, then focuses in on more recent trends in California. A focus on low density rural residential development begins to differentiate suburban sprawl from "exurban" and rural sprawl. Exurban and rural sprawl is the emerging character of growth in the Sacramento Watershed. This is unlike most southern California and Bay Area sprawl, characterized by leapfrogging suburban sprawl. [Read more]

Costs of sprawl are summarized as addressed in the classic National Research Council work The Costs of Sprawl—Revisited (1998). Those areas are:

  1. public and private capital and operating costs;
  2. transportation and travel costs;
  3. land/natural habitat preservation;
  4. quality of life; and
  5. social issues

The differences between the costs of suburban growth versus the costs of exurban/rural growth are addressed by an analysis done by the American Farmland Trust of 102 different sprawl studies. The difference between suburban and exurban/rural costs are explored, which indicates distinct near-term incentives for exurban sprawl. Specific cost questions for the Sacramento Watershed are posed.[Read more]

Urban smart growth principles and exurban/rural sprawl are contrasted in matrix format. The smart growth principles used are those agreed upon by the Western Governors Association. The rural characteristics of growth in the Sacramento Watershed are then compared with each principle for their relevance.[Read more]

Rural sprawl momentum and the demise of agriculture in the Sacramento Watershed are each addressed in this section. As Sacramento Watershed agriculture is primarily grazing (as indicated on the agricultural grazing map), trends in the cattle raising industry are noted comparing ranch sizes and financial risk. The momentum of rural sprawl is viewed in this section from a national trend which may replicate in the Sacramento Watershed. [Read more]

Lack of services in rural sprawl is contrasted with urban and suburban public services. The costs of sprawl are determined by the public services needed by the rural development. In this comparison, exurban/rural growth is differentiated from suburban growth, noting the suburban need versus the responsibilities of the rural resident to provide their own services. The lack of services required in rural development is the reason why the tax burden in the short term is low; this low cost of public service does not deter the pace of growth, and may provide an incentive for rural growth. [Read more]


The Sacramento Watershed is the next area of California to experience intense conversion from agricultural uses to urban uses. The eastern San Joaquin Valley has already evolved into a "linear city" along Route 99, with remaining agricultural lands between the cities progressively filling in with commercial, industrial, and residential development. The Sacramento Valley and Foothills region differs in one respect from the other converted regions of California, from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Clara Valley to the San Joaquin. As pointed out in Sprawl—A Compact History, where water is in short supply, there is little exurban settlement. Unlike other areas of California below the Delta which are dependent on water transfers for adequate supply, the Sacramento Valley has an abundant groundwater aquifer, as indicated in the groundwater 2050 scenario. Without that limiting factor, the entire valley area overlying the aquifer can build out to the low density rural residential zoning which is already in the general plans for much of that area, as indicated in the Department of Conservation (DOC) general plans map.