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Nevada to be fastest-growing state

KEN RITTER
Associated Press Writer

LAS VEGAS – Nevada is expected to be the nation’s fastest-growing state over the next 25 years, with an aging population that should double by 2030, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections released Thursday.

The bureau projected Nevada will add 2.3 million residents during the next quarter-century – a 114 percent increase over its 2000 census population of just under 2 million.

About one in four of those new residents will be older than 65, a whopping 264 percent change in the state’s elderly population from 2000, the census said.

“Nevada is becoming one of the mid-size states rather than a small state,” said Eric Herzik, political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The estimates, based on birth, death and migration trends, reflect the aging of baby boomers and a continuing U.S. migration from the North and East to the South and West. Sixty-five percent of the nation’s population is expected to live in South and West states by 2030, compared with 58 percent in 2000, the census said.

The growth would boost Nevada from 35th to 28th in population nationwide, moving it ahead of such states as Oklahoma, Connecticut, Utah and Arkansas.

It also promises to raise the state’s political profile while taxing natural resources and testing economic limits.

Gov. Kenny Guinn acknowledged Wednesday that Nevada will be challenged to provide schools, highways and other infrastructure for nearly 4.3 million people in 2030, while maintaining an affordable quality of life for families.

“Being the fastest-growing state in the United States for at least the past two decades has been a double-edged sword,” said Guinn, a former Clark County school superintendent.

The Las Vegas-based school district, now the nation’s fifth largest, already has one of the nation’s largest classroom construction programs, and plans to spend $3.7 billion building and improving schools through 2008. After opening 13 schools in 2004, it has 280,000 students on 301 campuses. It is due to open 11 more schools this year.

Guinn interpreted the state’s growth as an indication that its economy traditionally dominated by gambling interests has diversified, and that Nevada is an attractive place to live.

Herzik said an increase in population should lead to an increase in Nevada’s political clout in congressional representation and the Electoral College.

While Congress decides apportionment issues, Herzik called it possible that after adding a third congressional representative in 2002, Nevada could add two or three more by 2030.

Other experts saw some fraying at the state’s bursting seams.

“With size comes many complications in the everyday social organization of life,” said Robert Parker, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “If you have a doubling in the population, you’re also likely to see an increase in crime, homelessness, suicide, high school dropout rates and other social problems we don’t like to talk about.”

Parker said Las Vegas’ nation-leading pace of job creation was unlikely to continue. He pointed to recent economic data finding a growing gap between wages and a rising cost of living.

“People aren’t going to be attracted to a place where they hear how high housing prices are while they make $11 an hour at a casino,” he said.

Indeed, a Clark County Growth Task Force that recently finished a year studying development in the Las Vegas area, called affordable housing its top concern, along with air quality, transportation and the timing of infrastructure installation.

“The obvious things are water and resources,” said Leonard “Pat” Goodall, chairman of the 17-member volunteer panel, which found no immediate solutions to increasing demands for city and social services and skyrocketing housing costs.

“We spent a lot of time with the school people and the water people,” said Goodall, a former UNLV president. “They have such a huge task ahead of them.”

Southern Nevada has reached its limit of how much it may draw from the Colorado River, which provides 90 percent of Las Vegas-area drinking water. Water officials are developing a $2 billion plan to pump groundwater from rural Nevada and pipe it to Las Vegas to accommodate growth.

Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority’s general manager, predicted the region will be able to develop more water sources, increase conservation and negotiate a deal to draw more river water.

“We’ll have enough water,” she said.

Nevada state demographer Jeff Hardcastle said the first federal census in Nevada in 1860 found 6,857 people. It took the state 140 years to reach to 2 million, and the new projection projects 4.3 million in 2030.

“If these projections hold up, we will have to double everything – roads, schools, jobs, housing units, parks,” Hardcastle said. “You will be building a new state of Nevada all over again in 30 years.”