Fresno County, the 10th most populous county in California, could get knocked out of the Top 10 by Kern County in just a few decades, according to the latest growth projections from the state Department of Finance.
The state’s report, released this month, also projects that Madera and Merced counties will be among the state’s 10 fastest-growing counties by midcentury. Kern also will be on that list, the state projects.
While Fresno County’s population is projected to grow by nearly 48.8 percent between 2015 and 2060, reaching 1.46 million residents, Kern is projected to grow by 68.5 percent to 1.49 million residents. If the state’s estimates prove accurate, Kern will overtake Fresno by 2052.
Bill Schooling, chief of demographic research at the Department of Finance, said migration from Southern California likely accounts for a significant part of Kern’s projected growth. State demographers developed their projections after talking with local planners, he said. But he was quick to note that while Kern may overtake Fresno in the coming decades, “we are still seeing a lot of growth there in Fresno.”
That growth, fueled in part by cheap land and relatively inexpensive housing compared to the state’s coastal areas, will likely mean more traffic and wear-and-tear on the region’s roads, said Tony Boren, executive director of the Fresno Council of Governments, a regional planning agency.
Keeping up with the additional vehicles and pounding they’ll bring to Valley roads will be an ongoing challenge for transportation planners, Boren said. With the state trying to encourage more use of public transit and alternate modes of transportation, like bicycles, Boren said the region is in a constant battle with the state over dollars to keep needed roads in good repair.
“We’re basically the world’s largest garden,” he said. The trip from farm to market starts on a county road and continues on a state highway – and it takes vehicles to move the goods.
“You’re not going to get a ton of raisins to market on the back of a bicycle,” Boren said.
Demand for cheaper homes
High housing prices along the coast – and a reluctance to build more there to meet the demand – will continue to push more people inland, including those who live in the Valley but commute to coastal areas for better-paying jobs. That will add to road wear, he said.
Growth effects aren’t just going to be felt in Fresno County. According to the state’s projections, Madera County – whose population was estimated at 154,956 in 2015 – could hit 262,065 residents by 2060. Merced County’s population could grow from 269,729 to 452,519 by 2060 – nearly the same population as what Tulare County has now.
More broadly, the state projects several notable trends: California will become older, more Hispanic, and likely to join the ranks of Japan and some European countries that have more deaths than births. Migration is expected to keep California’s population growing.
But growth won’t be universal – or even. Counties in the northeast corner of California are expected to continue losing population. Coastal California will see growth slow as more people move into the inland regions like the Central Valley and inland Southern California.
About 14 percent of California’s population is 65 or older. By 2060, that could grow to 26 percent. In Fresno County, the 65 and older crowd will grow from about 11 percent in 2015 to nearly 20 percent by 2060.
For years, baby boomers kept the state’s population skewing younger than the national average. Now they’re reaching Social Security age, and that’s pulling the average higher at a rate faster than the rest of the country, the Department of Finance said.
Demographers do see some good news in all this, Schooling said. Older people are living longer and healthier lives. And while the elderly population is expected to balloon and the working-age population shrink as a percentage of state population, foreign-born residents who migrate here tend to be younger, which will help fill in demographic gaps in the workforce, he said.
Officials won’t know how accurate such long-term projections are until 2060. Projections four decades out are based on current conditions, Schooling said. Past projections sometimes have been spot-on, while other times have been well off of the mark, particularly when unanticipated changes occur. Think military base closings in the 1990s, which depressed in-migration for a while, he said.
“You can be misled,” he added.
Douglas E. Beeman: 559-441-6171, @dbeeman