Remember the congressman who, during a hearing, questioned the proposal to transfer 8,000 Marines and their families to Guam and asked whether the increase in population would cause the small Pacific island to “tip over and capsize?”
The remark sparked considerable bemused conjecture about whether the representative was speaking metaphorically, if awkwardly, about the impact on the island (which he later insisted was the case) of a sizable and sudden surge in the number of inhabitants, or if he thought there was a literal chance of Guam sinking beneath the waves.
But a look at some of the recent data coming out of the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that maybe the congressman was on to something, and that parts of the United States might indeed be in danger of radical physical transformation.
That ought to be a special concern here on the West Coast, sitting as we do atop a web of faults that, with sufficient numbers of added bodies, could snap, sending parts of Washington, Oregon and California adrift.
Washington, for example, was the fourth fastest growing state from 2015 to 2016 in terms of number of people, and fifth in percentage terms, according to an earlier Census Bureau report.
For all the talk about people having had it with California, it was third among all states for numeric growth. Oregon was ninth on that list, sixth on the percentage-growth list.
More recently, the Census Bureau reported that King County was fourth among all U.S. counties for one-year population growth in terms of number of people. On the list of fastest-growing in percentage terms, coming in at No. 10 was, of all places, Kittitas County (the greater Ellensburg metroplex).
Washington had a placing on the list of the 25 fastest-growing metropolitan areas (in percentage change) with Olympia-Tumwater, coming in at No. 23.
There are a lot of curious and interesting factoids to be mined out of the census data.
Example: For all of Seattle’s outsized national image (not to mention its outsized opinion of itself), the city is comparatively small. It doesn’t rank on the list of the 15 largest U.S. cities, falling below not just those you’d assume but some you wouldn’t think of (San Antonio, Texas; San Jose, California; Jacksonville, Florida; and Indianapolis, Indiana).
It’s only when you toss in Bellevue and the rest of the Eastside, and Tacoma, that you nudge the metropolitan area up to No. 15.
Here’s another: the Census Bureau calculates population trends for what are known as micropolitan areas – urban areas with populations between 10,000 and 50,000. Of the top five fastest-growing micro areas, Ellensburg (them again) placed third in percentage terms, while Oak Harbor was fifth in numeric gain.
But there are some big-picture, long-term trends to be teased out of the data that figure prominently in business and economic issues, locally and nationally.
One issue Washington doesn’t appear to have, at least to the extent of states in the Northeast and Midwest, is the impact of population loss.
A scan of year-to-year data on population changes at the county level shows that no Washington county lost people from 2015 to 2016 (although tiny Columbia County stayed precisely at 3,938, according to Census Bureau estimates, and has lost population since 2010).
Even counties that have had some economic wobbles and saw a drop in population earlier in the decade, such as Mason and Grays Harbor, are rebounding.
The picture is much bleaker for other parts of the country. The boom in oil and gas production sent multiple North Dakota counties crowding the top of the list of fastest-growing in the United States.
One county that once ranked second in percentage growth for the entire country fell to 2,858th. Among larger cities and counties, Cook County, Illinois (Chicago) lost 21,324 from 2015 to 2016 and Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit) lost 7,696.
People are leaving those areas and moving to places such as Washington, the West, Texas and Florida in large part because that’s where the jobs are, which is an economic endorsement of sorts.
But growth brings its own issues, as anyone who has tried to buy a home or commute to work on Interstate 5 can attest.
Population growth and shifts already are forcing some tough, expensive decisions. Where are all these people going to live? Where’s the supply going to come from to satisfy everyone’s demand for electricity and water? Where are they going to shop or go to school? And will we be able to generate enough new jobs for the newcomers if the traditional drivers of the regional economy – such as aerospace and tech – falter?
Expect even more as long as the economy continues to attract people here. They’re not likely to subside until one of three things happens: 1) The economy goes into recession; 2) The Big One hits and we all tumble into the drink; 3) We all move to somewhere else that’s not so full up.
We hear Ellensburg is nice.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.