BY KURTIS ALEXANDER The Fresno Bee
The San Joaquin Valley will continue to grow faster than the rest of California as development advances across the wide-open landscapes and a young Hispanic population flourishes.
By 2060, the eight-county region will see its population more than double from about 4 million residents to 8.2 million residents, according to state projections released this past week.
KERN POPULATION ESTIMATES
Source: California Department of Finance
The valley's share of California's population, the projections suggest, will increase from about 10 percent to nearly 16 percent over the half-century, a shift that will position the region to be a much bigger player on the state stage.
"The valley's going to have increasing political clout and increasing economic importance," said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of Pacific in Stockton. "It underscores the importance of trying to achieve a long-running strategy for the region."
Already, the valley is demanding more state money for roads and infrastructure and getting more say in Sacramento as legislative redistricting accounts for the region's growing numbers.
The growth is not surprising. In fact, the population projections, like those across California, are slightly less than the previous state projections in 2007, which factored in a housing boom that ended up going bust.
Still, the projections portend major changes for the valley, not only in numbers but in makeup.
Hispanics, for example, will soon constitute the vast majority of valley residents, increasing from about 49 percent in 2010 to more than 57 percent by 2060, according to the projections.
Kern County will be 59.5 percent Hispanic in 50 years, according to the projections, while the county's white population will shrink to 30.5. It was 49.3 percent Hispanic and 38.7 percent white in 2010.
The trend holds statewide. Within the next year, Hispanics in California are projected to reach the milestone of outnumbering whites, joining only New Mexico in the claim. By 2060, Hispanics will account for 48 percent of California's population, according to the projections, while whites will make up 30 percent.
Driving the ethnic shift, says the state's chief of demographic research Bill Schooling, is a young and robust Hispanic population that's in or approaching its child-bearing years.
"Certainly, the younger age structure is a big part of this," Schooling said.
Continued immigration also plays a role, and both California and the valley will hold their distinction of longtime gateways to newcomers.
The state projections are the product of the Department of Finance. The numbers are part of an ongoing effort to assess California's future needs, from water demand to transportation. The data are based on Census figures, state health records and input from local planners.
According to the projections, California's total population will grow from 37.3 million residents in 2010 to 52.7 million in 2060. The forecast is down from the numbers six years ago.
The state's population will generally get older as median age rises from about 35 years to 42 years over the next half-century, the projections suggest.
And women will continue to slightly outnumber men.
In the valley, Fresno County is expected to relinquish its title as the most populous. The county is projected to grow from 932,377 residents in 2010 to 1.6 million in 2060, while Kern County is expected to grow from 841,146 residents to nearly 2.1 million.
A strong economy in Bakersfield, largely from oil, and additional transplants from Southern California are driving the gains there, experts say.
"Kern County without a doubt has been the faster grower in the past decade," said Michael with the Business Forecasting Center. "It's actually been adding jobs."
Planners in cities and counties across the region have been preparing for the growth. In many communities, planners are even ahead of the game as they expected last decade's real estate boom to continue, which it did not.
Tony Boren, executive director of the Fresno Council of Governments, said it's important for valley planners to make sure their growth plans are done right -- that they're sustainable and don't encourage reckless sprawl.
"We are the world's number one agricultural region," Boren said. "When we grow horizontally instead of vertically, we eat up the ag land. And with that, comes traffic and bad air."
-- Californian government editor Christine Bedell con tributed to this report.