As much as states and communities hunger for growth and prosperity, they can't afford to ignore the fact that those achievements come at a price. The western United States, in particular, is rife with examples of the toll rapid growth can exact.

Gov. Mike Leavitt's growth summit, then, can be a valuable start in Utah's preparations now that the westward boom is hitting home. At the very least, the meetings and discussions scheduled from Wednesday to Friday, are a refreshing head-on acknowledgment by the state's leaders that problems must be anticipated and planned for.Utah's dramatic growth is summarized best by newly released estimates from the Bureau of the Census. From 1990 to 1994, the state grew by an estimated 178,222 people or by 10.3 percent. That four-year rate is a pace far ahead of the state's 17.9 percent growth rate for the entire decade of the 1980s, and it is the equivalent of adding another city the size of Salt Lake City in only four years.

Of that four-year growth, 128,718 people settled in metropolitan areas, where they are straining traffic and water supplies, and where they build homes in places that used to be farms or pastures.

Transportation, water and open-lands development are the three main topics placed on the summit's agenda by the Republicans and local government leaders. They are important concerns, regardless of popular opinion.

Interestingly, an opinion poll conducted for the summit shows that Utahns didn't include water or open-space concerns anywhere on their list of growth concerns. Transportation finished fourth on the list, behind overpopulation, crime and education.

The Democratic Party included crime, education and housing on its list of items for the summit, but the party's weakness in the state may keep that agenda from receiving serious consideration.

Is this a cause for concern? Not necessarily. Water and land-use issues are to the state what a furnace and underground sewage lines are to a home. No one pays much attention to them until things go wrong, and then their proper function is of vital importance.

Too many politicians govern by opinion poll, trying to gauge popular will before making decisions. The summit's agenda is correct in recognizing water, land-use and transportation problems as challenges that can silently gnaw at the state until its quality of life erodes badly.

Certainly, the other items should not be ignored. They are vitally important. But, with the exception of housing, they already have been top concerns in each of the past several legislative sessions while highways have clogged and land and water have disappeared.

The parties to the summit already have outlined potential solutions that include leasing Utah's share of Colorado River water, creating a state commission to deal with preserving undeveloped land, and giving cities and counties greater taxing authority.

Leavitt wants to set aside money into a 10-year Centennial Highway Endowment to begin covering the estimated $2.7 billion in state highway needs. He wants $150 million more added to the transportation fund next year, and both he and GOP leaders plan to eventually raise the gasoline tax, which - when adjusted for inflation - is now less than it was before the last increase in 1987.

In organizing the summit, Leavitt was wise to include both major political parties and local governments. Cities and counties, in particular, need a voice in alleviating problems that tend to affect them more than any other level of government.

But the summit, which ultimately will result in proposed legislation, also aims to include the people of Utah. A public meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Cottonwood High, several radio stations have scheduled call-in shows on the issues, and the governor will hold a one-hour Internet chat with the public beginning Friday at noon.

Everyone should plan to get involved in this important concern.