RENO, NEV. -- Nevada has become the fastest-growing state in the nation by capitalizing on the economic, social and environmental problems of neighboring California.

But rapid development in the Washoe Valley surrounding Reno and in the sprawling, urban desert of the Las Vegas Valley has caused longtime Nevadans and new residents alike to complain that people are bringing with them the problems of congestion, air pollution and crime from which they fled.

Last week, in the picturesque Carson Valley south of here, proposed changes in the Douglas County master plan to allow more residential and commercial construction produced a debate as old and lively as the American West.

"I lived in Southern California, I went through this for about 30 years and escaped," Peter Bandurraga told the county commissioners. But Doris Brown, whose family owns a small construction business, supported the changes and said others deserve the same opportunity as Bandurraga.

"You needed us to build your houses; you needed the people who worked for me to build your houses," she told him. "Now that you've got yours, you don't care about anybody else."

Though county commissioners sided with the anti-growth forces, agreeing to a 16-month moratorium on plan changes, subdivisions and shopping centers are rapidly replacing rural meadows in many other counties.

The individualist ethic of "getting yours" has long spurred the economy in this wide-open state, which six decades ago rescued itself from the economic ravages of the Depression by legalizing casino gambling.

Ever since, gambling -- or "gaming," as it is universally known here -- has been the dominant industry. There are 1,218 casinos in Nevada. A recent study showed that 26 percent of Nevada's jobs are provided by the gambling industry while another 25 percent are "tourism {and} gaming related."

Even Nevadans who don't gamble recognize that the industry is the state's economic mainstay. An old saying here is that people would soon be "shooting deer on Virginia Street," Reno's main street, were gambling outlawed. But gambling is no longer the entire story of Nevada.

Jim Spoo, director of the state Commission on Economic Development, observed that Nevada's growth in the past decade was marked by diversification. Senior citizens attracted by lower housing costs moved to Nevada from Los Angeles and the San Francisco area. So did corporations fleeing higher California taxes and more extensive regulations.

The number of non-gaming companies in Nevada increased nearly 50 percent in the 1980s, mirroring the 50.8 percent population increase that made Nevada the nation's fastest-growing state. Many Fortune 500 companies have built huge warehouses in Reno and neighboring Sparks to serve the California market.

Nevada was the most thinly populated of U.S. states for the first half of the century. In 1940 it had 110,000 people, little more than one person per square mile. The final Census Bureau figures for 1990 put Nevada's population at 1,206,152, with 60 percent living in Clark County (Las Vegas and its suburbs). Clark County grew 37 percent during the decade. Washoe County (Reno and Sparks) grew 23 percent.

With the growth has come a wagonload of problems especially familiar to the residents of California, the nation's most populous state.

Reno, like Los Angeles, sits in a basin ringed by mountains. On some days, particularly in winter when the temperature inversion is severe, Reno has smog that rivals or exceeds that of Los Angeles. Las Vegas is also beset by air pollution and even more by traffic congestion.

Throughout the state, social services such as health care are strained by population growth. Last week, in Washoe County, the county hospital ran out of influenza vaccine. Crime in urban areas, including the youth gang violence that is a bane of Los Angeles, is on the increase.

"If we were having quality growth, I'd be a cheerleader," says Reno Gazette-Journal columnist Rollan Melton, a lifelong Nevadan. "But there are more minuses than pluses. People are coming to Nevada expecting that there will be high-quality jobs at high pay. Disillusion sets in quickly."

On the plus side is a frank recognition by Nevada's leaders that dramatic steps are necessary to manage growth and provide a higher quality of social services. The calls from politicians for restraints on growth have received support from newspapers such as the Gazette-Journal and the Las Vegas Sun, which used to be noted for their boosterism.

"Nobody tries to hide the problems associated with our phenomenal growth," says Spoo. "There is a cost. We have to pay the piper in the form of a broadened tax base."

Nevada's taxes are among the nation's lowest. The state has neither a personal income tax nor a corporate tax. Most state revenues come from taxes on gambling or sales taxes, of which 40 percent are paid by the 29 million annual visitors to Nevada.

In 1990 the state's teachers qualified an initiative for the ballot that would have imposed a corporate income tax, but disowned the initiative after the legislature agreed to consider a state constitutional amendment that would impose a 1 percent tax on gross proceeds of all non-gambling companies. The amendment is expected to be approved this year, with most revenues earmarked for education.

Nevada was one of the few western states where voters in 1990 approved a bond issue to buy new parks and wetlands. As a result, the state will be able to save such scenic areas as the Huffaker Hills south of Reno, where ruts from the wagon trains used by early pioneers can still be seen.

In Las Vegas last week, local officials unveiled a plan to reduce air pollution even at the cost of slowing economic growth. "It's time to stem the tide," said Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury. "If the choice is between continued growth and decent air quality, growth will have to be slowed."

The greatest limit to Nevada's continued growth, however, is lack of water. Nevada is the most arid U.S. state, and both Las Vegas and Reno have launched ambitious water-importation plans despite opposition from rural counties.

"We should not import water into the {Reno} basin," said Reno attorney William Thornton, until recently a member of the State Tourism Commission. "We will wind up with more sewage in the Truckee River. Limiting water is also a way to limit growth."

Nonetheless, there is strong sentiment in Clark County for tapping the underground water reserves of three vast rural counties to meet the city's needs -- a proposal opposed by the National Park Service because of the damage the service said it would do to Death Valley. And recent legislation drafted by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appears to have solved long-litigated issues of water rights on the Truckee, with the prospect that Reno will have more water storage.

As much of the nation remains mired in recession, Nevada continues its economic expansion. But it is a troubling growth. In Reno, at least, many appear to share the view of Nevada historian and novelist Robert Laxalt that the state is heading for the turn of the century "with its fingers crossed."