SALT LAKE CITY — San Juan County, located in Utah's remote southeastern corner, is the fastest-growing county in the nation, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Wednesday night.
Two other Utah counties — Wasatch and Juab — also cracked the top 10.
Emily Harris, a demographic analyst at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, said San Juan County’s strong showing was surprising.
The Census Bureau estimates San Juan County gained about 1,000 residents between 2015 and 2016, for a growth rate of 7.6 percent.
Fastest-growing counties in the U.S.| Joseph Tolman, U.S. Census Bureau
That amount of growth was enough to beat Kendall County outside of San Antonio, Texas, and Hays County outside of Austin, Texas, for the top spot, according to the Census Bureau.
"This data doesn't tell us the underlying reasons of why people are moving to San Juan County," Harris said. "It's a beautiful area in southeastern Utah, so we could assume maybe there's some retirement migrations. There's also the (Native American) reservations to think about. But these are all guesses. We can't really say for sure what's causing the migration in the past year."
It's welcome news to San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman. This remote corner of Utah is one of the state's remotest and poorest counties, known lately as the backdrop of a bitter battle over the designation of the Bears Ears area as a national monument.
"I'm thrilled,” Lyman said. “San Juan County's been in the news for so many things so it's nice to have something more on a positive spin. But I hope it's got some legitimacy as well."
Lyman said no major employers or housing developments have moved into the county. But a small uptick in hotel reservations and growth in the health care industry have energized some parts of the county.
He said other county commissioners have also speculated whether people are moving back to the Navajo Nation reservation as oil jobs are drying up in other states.
"Gather it all up, and maybe we have 1,000 people," Lyman said.
Because San Juan County has a small population, even small influxes of people can make a big difference, Harris said. Last year's fastest-growing county, McKenzie County in North Dakota, fell to 2,858th place this year after a burst of outmigration.
The Census Bureau report only includes counties with more than 10,000 residents.
Harris said independent estimates produced by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute also show a significant amount of growth in San Juan County, although smaller than what the Census Bureau estimates.
The institute uses the same data sources — mostly IRS and Medicare data — and incorporates LDS Church membership data, building permits and school enrollment to get a more accurate picture.
It's less surprising that Wasatch County and Juab County landed among the top 10 fastest-growing counties in the nation, placing fourth and ninth respectively, Harris said.
People who work in Salt Lake City or Provo are looking for cheaper housing in the so-called ring counties like Wasatch County, Juab County, Morgan County and Tooele County, Harris said.
Utah was the fastest-growing state in the nation between 2015 and 2016, driven largely by economic opportunity and supplemented by a high birth rate.
The data released Thursday also showed that three of the 20 fastest-growing metropolitan areas were located in Utah.
Fastest-growing metro areas | Heather Tuttle
When it came to population growth by percentage, the St. George metro area ranked sixth, the Provo-Orem area ranked seventh, and Logan, which includes part of Idaho, ranked 20th.
The census data also confirms population estimates released by the Kem. C Gardner Policy Institute in December that estimated that Utah County added more residents than Salt Lake County did, marking a shift in the "center of growth" in the state.
The Census Bureau report estimates that the population of Utah County grew by more than 17,500 people between 2015 and 2016, trumping the 16,700 increase in Salt Lake County.
"To see raw numbers and to see that Utah County, in fact, grew by more people than Salt Lake County, it's pretty astounding," Harris said.
Other highlights include:
- Four of the top 10 counties that gained the most in raw numbers were in Texas; two were in Florida.
- Nine of the top 20 fastest-growing metro areas are also in Florida.
- Three high-population counties — Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit), and Baltimore, Maryland — are continuing to lose residents.