For the first time, another county in Utah has posted a bigger population increase than Salt Lake County.

In 1997, Utah County added 12,922 people. Salt Lake County gained 11,897, according to preliminary population estimates from the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget."We're not too surprised," said Utah County Commission Chairman Gary Herbert. "We've been nip and tuck with Salt Lake County in the past. Given time, we will be the largest county, assuming we can develop water."

Salt Lake County has 830,627 people, compared with Utah County's 330,803.

"Generally, because of its sheer size, Salt Lake has the greatest gain of people," said Natalie Gochnour, demographics and economics analysis manager for the governor's planning office. "What we are seeing in Utah County is available land, affordable land."

And, of course, lots of babies - and jobs.

"Not only do we have a high birthrate, we have economic growth. We are experiencing about a 6 or 7 percent job growth rate," said Herbert, who believes the county's economic health is a lure to draw back the residents who left the state during the 1980s recession.

"Probably 80 percent of those moving to Utah have ties here," he said. "A lot of people are coming home."

But it is the natural increase - births minus deaths - that continues to drive the state's population growth. About two-thirds of the 46,353 added to the state's population were natural.

While Utah County had the largest number of people added to its population, other counties posted faster 1997 growth rates. Tooele County grew the fastest, at 4.9 percent, followed by Washington, Iron and Summit counties, at 4.7 percent. Utah County at 4.1 percent was the only other county to top 4 percent growth. Salt Lake County showed a 1.4 percent increase, one of the state's slowest rates but still above the national average of 1.1 percent.

Daggett County, which added 80 people from 1993 to 1996, lost 50 last year, a drop of 6.2 percent. The only other county posting a net loss was Rich, with an 18-person, 1.8 percent decline.

The state's annual job growth has been in the 5 percent range since 1993, while the annual statewide population growth has been in the 2 percent range.

That disparity is credited to the major construction going on - I-15, American Stores, Little America and the federal courthouse - and to construction workers who don't call Utah home.

Gochnour said the state is in its fourth year of a general cooling-down. Growth rates in jobs and housing peaked in 1994; growth rates in personal income and wages peaked in 1995; home sales and residential construction peaked in 1996.