WASHINGTON — The U.S. population grew by 2.8 million in the past year and is edging toward 300 million, a threshold that should be reached within four years.

The South and West added the most people in the year that ended July 1, and Nevada was the fastest-growing state for the 17th consecutive year, according to Census Bureau estimates Thursday.

The overall population grew 1 percent, to nearly 291 million people. Immigration and a high birth rate among Hispanics — now the nation's largest minority group — helped fuel the increase.

The 1920 census was the first to record 100 million Americans, a figure that took nearly 150 years for the country to attain. The 200-million mark was surpassed 50 years later.

At the current rate, the nation will be home to 300 million people within four years, said John Haaga, director of domestic programs at the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit demographic research group.

Americans continue flocking to the South and West, with those regions accounting for about three-quarters of the growth in the last year. Nevada was the fastest-growing state, adding nearly 74,000 people, or 3.4 percent, to its population.

William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said climate and affordability are the main reasons people continue moving to Nevada.

"It's a substantially lower cost of housing," Frey said. "It also continues to attract a broad spectrum of migrants from other parts of the country as a resort town, and increasingly as a retirement center. Obviously, the warm weather and the recreation that's there is some draw. In a way, it's become almost like a suburb of Los Angeles."

Following Nevada on the list of the fastest-growing states were Arizona, Florida, Texas and Idaho. Three new states moved into the top 10 this year: California, Delaware and Hawaii. They bumped Alaska, Oregon and Colorado.

Immigration is a key factor for a number of states, California chief among them.

"California is growing because it's a big destination for immigrants but it's actually losing migrants domestically," Haaga said. "There are more people leaving California to move to other states, usually the Mountain West or the Pacific Northwest, than there are people coming in from other parts of the country."

Haaga attributed the domestic drain from California to several reasons, including high housing prices and long commutes.

California remained the most populous state with 35.5 million people in 2003. The second and third most populous states were Texas (22.1 million) and New York (19.2 million). There was only one change in the ranking of the 10 most populous states between 2002 and 2003, as Georgia (ninth) surpassed New Jersey (10th).

Every state except North Dakota grew in the last year. North Dakota lost an estimated 74 people and now has a population of just under 634,000.

Washington, D.C., lost almost 5,800 people or about 1 percent of its population of around 563,000.

On the Net:

Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov

— Arizona Daily Sun

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