- Associated Press - Thursday, March 27, 2014

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s most populated counties continue to grow at a rapid pace while the population in rural areas of the state decline.

New population estimates based on the U.S. Census were released Thursday, and showed the state’s long-standing trend of dwindling rural populations and urban growth continued.

Experts say people move to cities because they offer more employment opportunities, higher wages, choices in schools and housing and other amenities.

Out of counties with at least 1,000 residents, Nebraska’s five biggest counties grew the fastest between April 2010 and last July, said David Drozd, a researcher at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Sarpy County led with 6.6 percent population growth in the Omaha suburbs. Lancaster County, which is home to the state capital of Lincoln, ranked second with 4.1 percent growth. Douglas County, which includes Omaha, and Buffalo County, which includes Kearney, both recorded 3.9 percent growth.

Hall County, which is home to Grand Island, came in fifth with 3.6 percent population growth.

The Census estimates showed that 31 of Nebraska’s 93 counties added population between 2010 and 2013. But 61 counties across Nebraska lost population. Only Logan County showed no change.

Overall, Nebraska’s total population grew 2.3 percent to 1,868,516 people.

Drozd, who analyzes Census data for UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research, said the state’s three biggest counties - Douglas, Sarpy and Lancaster - are now home to nearly 54 percent of the total population.

The population of Nebraska’s metropolitan areas also continued to grow.

The Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area, which includes five counties in Nebraska and three in Iowa, gained nearly 30,000 people - an increase of 3.4 percent - to reach a population of 895,151.

The Lincoln metro area, which includes Lancaster and Seward counties, grew 4 percent to reach 314,125 people. And the Grand Island metropolitan area grew 2.6 percent to include 83,989 people in Hall, Hamilton, Howard and Merrick counties.

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