‘The secret’s out’: Utah is seeing ‘remarkable’ population growth. Here’s how much is because of migration

Over the last year, Utah saw second-highest recorded net migration and the lowest natural increase since 1975

The Beehive state is growing, and doing so quickly. Even though its fertility rate is falling, its net migration is way up.

Key components to keeping up with this growth in a sustainable way include housing affordability, air quality control, energy planning and water policy among others components.

Population estimates by the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute released Wednesday during its monthly online Newsmaker Breakfast indicate that the state added approximately 71,936 people since the 2020 census, reaching an estimated total of 3,343,552 Utahns. From July 1, 2020, to July 1 of this year, the population grew by 58,729 people. This annual growth rate of 1.8% is the highest since 2017.

These estimates, created by the Utah Population Committee, were built using the most recent decennial census.

"For the state of Utah, we averaged 160 new residents per day over the last year," said Emily Harris, senior demographer at the Gardner Institute and lead author of the report. "The state also experienced the second-highest recorded net migration and the lowest natural increase since 1975. This year's estimates indicate a slight rebound as Utahns move through a global pandemic and attempt to find a new normal."

Key results from the report include:

  • Natural increase: Since July 1, 2010, Utah has experienced an annual decline in natural population increase due to decreased number of new births, while annual deaths increase. National trends during this same period depict a declining fertility rate significantly impacted by the Great Recession. Utah's total fertility rate fell from 2.45 in 2010 to below replacement level (1.99 in 2019), moving from the highest rate in the nation to the third-highest.
  • Net migration: Utah's 2021 net migration is 34,858 — almost 10,000 more than last year's estimate. It is the highest net migration since 2005 and is the seventh year that net migration has been above 20,000. Net migration contributed to 59% of Utah's population growth over the past year, up from 49% the year before.
  • Region and county-level results: Iron County had the fastest growth at 6.2%, followed by Tooele County (4.1%), Washington County (4.0%), and Utah County (2.9%). Utah County had the highest natural increase, net migration and population growth in the state — far exceeding Salt Lake County's 0.8% growth.

One-third of statewide growth between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021 came from Utah County residents. Salt Lake County contributed 15.9% of growth and Washington County was responsible for 12.5% of growth. Davis, Weber, Cache, Iron and Tooele counties contributed between 7.7% and 5.1% each to the state's overall growth. Garfield County was the only county to lose population in 2021.

  • Impacts of COVID-19: Although the anticipated impacts of COVID-19 on births were not apparent in the data, the significant increase in deaths changed how the state and many counties grew. Net migration became the driver of growth statewide, increasing by 15% over the previous year and driving growth in three-quarters of counties. While net migration varies annually in Utah, natural increase (outside of a global pandemic) typically does not. Once COVID-19 related deaths subside, there is an expectation that natural increase will stabilize.

‘The secret’s out’

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the growth is "remarkable."

"The secret's out, how great our state is, and how many people want to be here for a lot of different reasons, and there's not just one (reason)," he said, adding that the growth presents a unique challenge to the state but also a great opportunity.

"We've benefitted as a state for a generation or two of having people that really thought about these types of things and how we can really be collaborative, be responsible, but manage our growth in ways that benefit every Utahn; and we need to keep that going forward and really work hard on that," Wilson said.

Laura Hanson, state planning coordinator at the Utah Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, said that she feels fortunate the be in a position to think about where Utah is headed in the long term and emphasized that growth brings a lot of opportunities to the state.

"We have jobs, we have new creative ideas, more shopping, more restaurants — although (growth) is a little scary sometimes, it brings some really good things to our state," Hanson said. "Unfortunately, some surveys have shown, recently, that the majority of Utahns feel like we're growing too quickly. They feel like there's a change to their community character — we're experiencing more traffic congestion, our recreational areas are crowded. But sadly, we really can't close the doors or slow this growth."

Both Wilson and Hanson said that slowing any of Utah's current growth would result in a struggling economy and an increased cost of living, something neither sees as beneficial.

"What we need to do is really connect with Utahns and better understand what values you feel might be threatened by this growth and what policies or investments can the state take to help ensure that we navigate the growth and we maintain what makes Utah, Utah," Hanson said.

Putting systems in place to deal with Utah's growth

Wilson said that the focus at a state level and a policy level is to ensure that the state is in a better place "than we found it."

"We've got to have processes that drive more long-term thinking, and bigger thinking around where we're heading, so that we make better decisions in the moment," Wilson said.

The groundwork for some of this long-term thinking was laid out in Utah Gov. Spencer Cox's $25 billion budget proposal for next year, Hanson said.

"I think that people who are focused on growth issues will be really pleased with some of the recommendations that are included in it," she said.

The budget proposes about a half-billion dollars in investments in water infrastructure planning and management, including funding for the Great Salt Lake, and incentives for water conservation at all levels, from agriculture to individual homes.

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Additionally, the budget includes $46.2 million for active transportation investments to combat issues surrounding air quality.

"These are bicycle facilities, sidewalks and trails so that people don't have to drive a car if they don't want to and gets people off the roads," Hanson added. "We've actually had declining emissions over the last many years. It goes to show that when Utah puts our minds on a target ... we're really effective at accomplishing those goals. So, I think air quality is one that will continue to be a focus for us."

Hanson also spoke about energy planning and the state's energy needs continuing to increase with a growing population and increased focus on electrification.

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"We'll need to continue to diversify our energy resources, and that means investment in new transmission corridors, the backbone infrastructure to support (electric vehicle) charging along our state's highways," she said. "This is another focus and priority for the governor and in his roadmap, he's identified updating an energy plan — all of these different pieces need to come together and we need to continue to work together to address these challenges."

Although the budget also includes $228 million to address affordable housing and homelessness, Wilson said that the issue is more related to supply and demand.

"We've got to do a better job of getting more supply into the market quicker; and we need our municipalities, in particular, to be a little more agile and a little bit quicker in terms of the way they approve projects so that we can fix this — that's the only solution to get more supply into the market," Wilson added. "My concern about housing affordability is how in the world are our kids and grandkids going to be able to afford to stay here?"

The full population estimates from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute are available online here.

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