This Changing Colorado: The Centennial State Confronts a Population Boom

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"Colorful Colorado" may one day be referred to as "Crowded Colorado" given the number of people expected to move to the Centennial State by 2040. All that growth will take a toll on the state's infrastructure as well as water and other natural resources.

Parts of Colorado are already feeling the pinch of a growing population. Greeley is now a city of more than 100,000 people and affordable housing along the Front Range is getting harder to come by. Now, factor in a 40% increase in population over the next 25 years…

"What we forecast is an average growth or the maximum likelihood," said state demographer Elizabeth Garner. For our series, Rocky Mountain PBS I-News analyzed data from her office and the U.S. Census Bureau. The numbers show an estimated 7.8 million people will call Colorado home by 2040. "A lot of areas are poised for growth."

Weld County's population is expected to double to half-a-million, and El Paso County will still be the largest county. And it's not just the Front Range; the I-News analysis shows seven of the ten fastest growing counties will be on the western slope, including Eagle, Garfield and Routt.

Colorado Population Change 1970-2040 (2014)
Credit State Demography Office / Colorado Department of Local Affairs
Colorado Population Change 1970-2040 (2014)

"Colorado continues to attract those in the 24 to 35 year age group, and that means there's jobs here and young people are coming from all over the country to fill those jobs," said Mark Radke with the Colorado Municipal League, a resource for cities and towns, which represents their interests at the state capitol. "It shows health, I mean if the opposite were true and you were in a state that showed 24 to 35 year olds exiting, you'd know you'd have a problem."

But growth poses its own challenges. Housing is already tight. More people will likely continue to price out those who can't keep up with the real estate market.

"And eventually that will catch up with us," said Kelly Moye, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Association of Realtors. "So eventually our market will become not affordable for most people. And when companies look to bring jobs they may choose another place because it's not an affordable place to live."

That's what happened to 30 year-old Trang Pham. While she found a place to live in Telluride, she couldn't find space to grow her Vietnamese food business.

"I love Telluride; the thing is, my passion to do something for myself is a little bit bigger than wanting to stay in Telluride and that's the only reason I'm leaving."

An Urban-Rural Divide

And recognizing that most of those moving to Colorado will likely settle in more urban areas, some rural communities are struggling to stay relevant. The eastern plains and parts of western Colorado are projected to stay stagnant or lose population.

"We've got a number of initiatives underway by people who have just basically I feel dug their heels in and said we're not going to allow this to happen. I'm hopeful that attitude will win, but I'm not sure it will," said John Sutherland. He's the city administrator of Lamar, located two hours east of Pueblo. He said young people in his community are already leaving to go to areas with better job prospects.

Economic development officials said communities are working on new approaches to build bike trails and creation and attracting business such as wind farms.

"What I've always found heartening is the inventiveness of these communities and building on what they have and making the most of that to improve their economy," said Radke with CML.

Changes on the Horizon

No matter where people end up living – having enough water to accommodate an additional 2.3 million people by 2040 is already an issue. That's why Governor John Hickenlooper is promising action on the newly released statewide water plan.

"We now have a plan with measurable objectives and concrete goals. We've got to get right to work."

But the biggest change on the horizon is an aging population. Colorado is one of the youngest states in the country – state demographer Elizabeth Garner said that will start to shift when a large group of people who moved here in the 1970s reach retirement age.   

"The goal is to create strategic plan for how do you age well in Colorado. So, not saying that anything magical happens at 65," said Garner. "But you start switching into that non- worker, and that's a difference, because your commuting is different, your use of transportation is different, your housing choices may change."

Change is inevitable – which is why state leaders say it's important to create long-term plans now. The Governor's office has a commission on aging and earlier this year lawmakers created a separate task force to study the issue.  In the coming months we'll examine these aspects of a changing Colorado in more detail and what it means to those of us living here now.