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Deseret Morning News graphic

Utah's Dixie, known for its warm desert climate and red rock scenery, continues to grow faster than any other county in Utah — and nearly every county in the nation.

With a one-year growth rate of nearly 8 percent, Washington County is the nation's fifth fastest-growing county, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates released today.

And, according to state projections, the county, anchored by St. George, is well on its way to becoming a major metropolitan area.

The estimates showed nearly all of America's fastest-growing counties were located in the South or West and were generally suburban or rural.

The estimates are for July 1, 2005, before Hurricane Katrina caused mass evacuations from many Southern coastal counties.

Florida's Flagler County was the nation's fastest-growing for the second year in a row. The coastal county between Daytona Beach and Jacksonville grew by 10.7 percent in one year.

Other counties in the top five were Lyon County, Nev., near Carson City; Kendall County, Ill., near Chicago; and Rockwell County near Dallas.

Utah as a whole grew at double the national rate of 1 percent. Other Utah counties that made the list of the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties were Iron County, located just north of Washington, and Wasatch County, which neighbors the Wasatch Front.

Iron County ranked 37th nationally, growing by an estimated 5.2 percent over one year to a 2005 population of 38,311. Wasatch County ranked 54th, with a growth rate of roughly 4.6 percent to 18,974 people.

Washington County is increasingly tied to the Las Vegas economy, and some of that growth appears to be spilling over into Iron County, said Robert Spendlove, manager of demographic and economic analysis for the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget..

"A lot of the growth we're seeing in the southwestern portion of the state is essentially overflow from Southern California and southern Nevada," he said.

With a 2005 population estimated at 118,885, Washington County is also the state's fifth largest county.

Washington County also ranked 77 nationally in its numerical growth. It gained an estimated 8,460 people between July 1, 2004, and July 1, 2005, according to the census estimates; and, since 2000, it has grown by more than 30 percent.

State estimates show an even faster-paced growth than the census. State population estimates show the county at approximately 127,000 — 40 percent higher than in 2000, Spendlove said.

Washington County's population is projected to top 600,000 by 2050, he said.

"That projection assumes the growth rate in the county will slow down," Spendlove said. "Washington County will still be one of the major growth counties in the state and nation."

Meanwhile, the census estimates showed continued growth along the Wasatch Front. Salt Lake County, with an estimated population of 948,172, ranked 38th nationally in numerical growth. The state's largest county gained 13,334 people, a growth rate of 1.4 percent.

Utah County ranked 64th, gaining an estimated 9,624 people to grow to 443,738 — a growth rate of 2.2 percent. And Davis County ranked 97th, gaining an estimated 6,792 people to grow to 268,187.

Spendlove said the Wasatch Front is experiencing what demographers call a "doughnut effect." Much of the growth is in suburban areas within large counties and in counties that border the anchoring metropolitan areas.

Spendlove said plans, such as a proposed pipeline from Lake Powell to bring in more water, are in the works to ease the impact of the growth.

"It's something that we've been thinking about for several years," Spendlove said. "For the entire history of state projections, we've underestimated Washington County. No one saw the growth we're seeing could continue."

Spendlove said although the county's growth will slow, according to Utah Population Estimates Committee projection, it's expected to continue outpacing statewide growth.

By 2050, the state's growth is expected to slow to 1.3 percent per year, but Washington County's isn't forecast to drop below 2.4 percent.

Spendlove said Salt Lake County is also expected to continue to grow — reaching 1.6 million people by 2050.

Washington County's rapid growth has worried conservationists, who note that St. George has one of the highest per capita water usage rates in the West.

Merritt Frey, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council, said in 2000 St. George used 391 gallons per capita per day. Phoenix used 240.

Frey said in 2003 the average water usage for Utah was 265 gallons per person per day.

While there are indications that the numbers have lowered some, there's nothing to suggest the spread has changed, she said.

"There really needs to be a huge focus in that county on water conservation," she said. "The advantage of new development is they have a chance to do it right the first time . . . to install efficient systems up front."

Ron Thompson, district manager of the Washington County Conservancy District, said growth is something his county has been dealing with for several years and is focusing on in its long-term planning.

Communities are working on water conservation plans and are working hard at defining transportation corridors. And schools are talking about long-term growth.

"St. George is probably more equipped than some of the smaller communities, but I think they'll get there," he said. "I think we're headed in the right direction."

The census calculates the estimates using administrative records and estimates for births, deaths and net migration.

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com