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Populations shrink in a few Valley cities, but Fresno is still No. 5 in California

Fresno remains California's fifth-largest city – for now.

But Sacramento's faster pace of growth since 2010 means that the capital could potentially overtake Fresno within a few years.

Tiny Fowler, a few miles south of Fresno, is small in numbers but has been big in its rate of growth since 2010, experiencing what is proportionally the largest percentage of population increase among Valley cities this decade according to new estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

And several Valley cities that are sites for state prisons have seen their populations seemingly defy logic and shrink in recent years – because the Census Bureau counts prison inmates as "residents" for its purposes. As California has undertaken measures in recent years to reduce the number of inmates in state prisons, the reductions are reflected in population changes for cities where the prisons are located.

The city of Avenal, tucked away in the hills of western Kings County, is but one example. Avenal lost 18.6 percent of its population during the seven-year span – the largest percentage decline of any California city. In 2010, the Census Bureau estimated that Avenal had 15,281 residents. By last summer, the population had fallen to 12,440.

All of that shrinkage, however, can be accounted for by a decrease of nearly 3,000 inmates at Avenal State Prison between mid-2010 and mid-2017. The civilian population in the city of Avenal actually grew – albeit only slightly, by 127 – during the same period.

Catching up to Fresno?

The urban region surrounding Sacramento is larger and more densely populated than the greater Fresno metropolitan area. But within their respective city limits, the latest figures from Census Bureau 's American Community Survey estimate Fresno's population at 527,438 as of July 2017, while Sacramento has nearly 502,000 people.

Sacramento held a population advantage over Fresno through the 1990 census, but by the time the next census was conducted in 2000, Fresno had overtaken the capital. The two cities, along with Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco, are the only California cities with populations greater than 500,000 out of the state's 482 incorporated cities.

Fresno has been growing at an annual rate of about 0.8 percent since the city cracked the half-million-people mark in 2011. Since 2010, the city's population has grown by a total of just under 6 percent.

Sacramento, however, is growing at a slightly faster rate of about 1.1 percent per year, or a cumulative 7.4 percent so far this decade.

The latest Census Bureau estimates come as the federal government gears up to conduct its next decennial census in 2020 – the effort to count every person in the country.

The comprehensive count serves as a baseline redrawing election districts for everything federal congressional districts, state Assembly and Senate seats, down to county boards of supervisors and city councils. They also provide a basis for allocation of money to cities, counties and states from the federal budget.

The American Community Survey estimates reveal that several cities in the central San Joaquin Valley, while much smaller, have seen a higher percentage of growth since 2010 than either Fresno or Sacramento. In Fowler, a few miles south of Fresno on Highway 99, the population has grown by more than 15 percent in the past seven years, while Clovis has gained about 14 percent in the same period.

Fowler is the second-smallest of Fresno County's 15 incorporated cities. At the beginning of the decade, the Census Bureau estimated Fowler's population at just under 5,650 residents; by last summer, it had grown to nearly 6,500 residents.

Clovis, in the meantime, grew from 96,261 residents in mid-2010 to 109,691 as of last July to remain the second-largest city in Fresno County and third-largest in the four-county region.

Lindsay and Dinuba, both in Tulare County, saw their populations grow by 13.1 percent and 11.4 percent, respectively.

The figures show that in small cities, even modest changes in the raw number of residents can trigger significant percentage gains – or sometimes losses – in population.

The inmate effect

At the other end of the spectrum, Avenal was not alone in experiencing a sizable decline in its population this decade. Not coincidentally, each is home to at least one major state prison facility where reductions in the numbers of inmates in recent years outpaced whatever modest growth has occurred in the civilian population.

Census Bureau guidelines call for the agency to "count people at their usual residence, which is the place where they live and sleep most of the time." As the criteria apply specifically to federal and state prisons and local jails, "prisoners are counted at the facility."

Besides Avenal, other shrinking Valley cities this decade included Corcoran, in southern Kings County, where there was a seven-year drop in population of 2,618 people – from 24,453 to 21,835 – amounted to a 10.7 percent decline.

During that same period, however, the two state prisons located in Corcoran – Corcoran State Prison and the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility – shed more than 3,200 inmates.

In Coalinga, in the western reaches of Fresno County, the overall population dropped from 18,070 in 2010 to 16,766 – a loss of 1,304 residents. But those figures include the reduction of more than 1,500 inmates at Pleasant Valley State Prison.

And in the Madera County city of Chowchilla, the Census Bureau estimates that the population fell by 160 between 2010 and 2017, from 18,718 to 18,558, or just under 1 percent. The two prisons there, the Central California Women's Facility and Valley State Prison (which was converted from a women's prison to a facility for men in 2012) collectively saw their inmate populations decline by 631.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews.
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