A new county emerged as the fastest growing in Utah, according to new population estimates data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Tooele County, at 4.2%, led all 29 of the state's counties in percentage growth between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2022, besting Daggett County's 3.8% increase, according to the bureau's Vintage 2022 estimates. Utah County, which led the state in that category in the 2021 report, retained its title as the state leader in absolute growth, adding over 16,000 new residents to push the countywide estimate over 700,000 people for the first time.

The report adds that Salt Lake County remains Utah's most populated county with nearly 1.19 million residents, even though it was one of only three counties to lose residents last year. However, local experts say that differences in how the Census Bureau and how the Utah Population Committee calculate data may explain why the trends are vastly different from a state report that came out in December.

Utah's growth in 2022

The Census Bureau initially reported in late December that Utah's growth slowed down a bit in 2022. The Beehive State gained about 41,687 residents from July 2021 to July 2022, a 1.2% increase. That was enough to land 10th in percentage increase among the 50 states. Utah led the country in percentage growth between the 2010 and 2020 censuses and placed second in the 2021 estimate.

Utah counties cracked the top 10 in either absolute or percentage growth this year, according to the report. Tooele County's 4.2% jump was no match for Whitman County in eastern Washington, which rose 10.1% over the past year. Daggett (3.8%), Iron and Washington (3.2% each), and Juab (3.1%) counties rounded out Utah's top five.

Utah County's absolute growth of 16,628 people helped its population grow by 2.4%. Washington (6,204), Tooele (3,200), Weber (2,973) and Cache (2,744) counties rounded out the top five, according to the Census Bureau.

"Even though the growth has slowed a little bit, we still have the same trend of Utah County and Washington County really driving the statewide growth," said Emily Harris, a senior demographer at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, as she reviewed the data. "Those two counties account for more than half of the statewide growth, so those are counties that we're always watching."

This map shows population percentage changes based on July 2021 and July 2022 population estimates. Most of Utah's counties experienced growth over the past year, as did other counties in the West and South.
This map shows population percentage changes based on July 2021 and July 2022 population estimates. Most of Utah's counties experienced growth over the past year, as did other counties in the West and South. | U.S. Census Bureau

Maricopa County, Arizona, had the largest numeric population increase in the U.S., gaining 56,831 people.

While the growth slowed down a bit, 25 of Utah's 29 counties, or 86%, experienced natural increases, meaning more babies were born than people who died. That bucks a national trend, where nearly 3 out of every 4 U.S. counties ended up with natural decreases in 2022.

Utah County's natural increase of 8,662 is the highest among Utah's counties but nowhere near Harris County, Texas's 2022-leading natural increase of 30,117. Carbon, Emery, Garfield and Piute counties all had natural decreases; however, the total decline there was only 61 people among the four counties combined.

What's the ongoing deal with Salt Lake County?

The Census Bureau data indicates that growth in Salt Lake, Utah's most populous county, is stagnant. It listed the county's population at 1,186,257, down 183 people from the 2021 estimate. It finds the county's natural increase of nearly 7,000 people was wiped out by more people moving out than moving in, otherwise referred to as net migration.

That's contrary to the Utah Population Committee report, which found that Salt Lake County gained nearly 10,000 residents in 2022, reaching 1.2 million overall. The two sides also found different trends in their respective 2021 reports.

So, why are these numbers so widely different?

It goes into how both estimates are calculated. Both methods take a population base and use available data to determine natural increase and net migration to come up with a new population base; however, they use different statistics to get these numbers.

The Census Bureau's report uses a mix of different National Center for Health Statistics reports to come up with an estimate on births and deaths. It primarily relies on Internal Revenue Service, Medicare enrollment and Social Security Administration information to piece together migration estimates.

The Utah Population Committee sprinkles in other readily available datasets like building permits and student enrollment information. It's more detailed — and possibly more precise — because the committee only has to track 29 counties, not the more than 3,000 that the Census Bureau tracks, Harris explained.

She added that they've spoken with experts in other U.S. counties, such as King County in Washington, who have also spotted discrepancies in local and federal data.

"They have to do more of a one-size-fits-all approach; whereas the Utah Population Committee, we tend to use more local data and we have local data experts who can help provide context for what we're seeing in the data," she said. "We have a lot of confidence in the (committee) estimates for Salt Lake County."

It's not just Salt Lake County that the two sides don't agree on: The Utah Population Committee's 2022 estimate is almost 20,000 higher than the Census Bureau's estimate. Had the two agreed, Utah would have tied Idaho for third in percentage increase growth.

The estimates, of course, don't carry the same weight as the actual decennial census, so there's no influence on a state's congressional representation or funding apportionment as compared to the 2020 census.

US trends inch closer to 'pre-pandemic' status

The Census Bureau's 2022 state report found that Texas and Florida's growth far surpassed any other states, while New York, California and Illinois suffered from some of the biggest population declines.

Thursday's report offers a slightly better picture of what's happening. The numbers show that the heaviest declines are among the country's largest counties.

Los Angeles County, California, for example, lost more than 90,000 residents between 2021 and 2022 — that is over 20,000 more residents lost than Cook County, Illinois, which placed second. The two are home to Los Angeles and Chicago. The next three counties on the list are all in the New York City area. Again, local data in those three cities could be different.

That said, it's not really a change from trends that were already emerging before the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, Dr. Christine Hartley, Census Bureau's assistant division chief for estimates, said this year's report finds county migration and growth patterns "edged closer to pre-pandemic levels this year."

The largest rises came around Phoenix, Houston and Dallas, with counties near Orlando and San Antonio not far behind. It shows that Southern and Western regions continue to attract the nation's growth.

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Higher education is another major driver of population change. Harley pointed out that students returned to campuses and it helped some of the fastest-growing counties between 2021 and 2022. Whitman County's 10.1% increase is likely the result of students coming back to Washington State University, which has an enrollment of over 27,000 students.

But the primary reasons why people move to certain counties over others aren't clear just from the population estimates, Harris cautions. There could be several factors, one being housing affordability. Many people flee to areas with more housing availability because of lower home prices. That could explain some of the trends in Utah, as well.

"We definitely hear anecdotal evidence of that," she said, of housing affordability in Utah specifically. "There's a lot of correlation, but we don't know if it's causation ... but we do see a lot of that when people are talking about making moves."

The exact causes will likely be studied by experts further as a result of the newly released data.

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