The increasing number of babies being born in Merced County helped push its population higher in 2012, according to the state Department of Finance's new population estimates.
In Merced County, there were nearly three times as many births as deaths. That helped Merced's population increase by 2,419 people to 261,708. That was a 0.93 percent increase, which was one of the state's biggest gains.
The population numbers for counties throughout California were released this week. Statewide, the population reached an estimated 37.8 million, which was 256,000 more than the previous year. That was a 0.68 percent increase.
More than a half-million babies were born in California, which was twice as many as the number of people who died during the year, according to the data.
Rebecca Cates, director of the family birth center at Mercy Medical Center, said officials there expect the year to end with 2,830 births based on the rate of births the hospital has seen so far. It averages about 230 births a month.
In 2011, the hospital saw 2,811 births, she said.
"We have not seen a significant increase at all," she said.
The hospital numbers don't represent the county-only number of births. The data include births from out of the county as well, Cates said. There's a possibility that some mothers in Merced County deliver in hospitals outside of the county, too, she said, and there are home births as well.
The hospital saw an increase in births from 2010 to 2011, she said, when it recorded 2,552 births in 2010 -- up by 259.
It's encouraging to see the number of births, despite the recession, she said, even though the numbers at Mercy have been pretty steady. "It shows hope for a future," she said.
Memorial Hospital Los Banos has seen 689 births to date this year, said Katie Kidder, spokeswoman for Sutter Health Central Valley Region. Memorial is a Sutter Health affiliate.
The hospital recorded 737 births in 2011, Kidder said, and is on track to have about the same number this year.
Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation, and economic development for Merced County, said population growth presents both opportunities and challenges.
County officials will be interested in seeing where the population growth is taking place and use that data as a basis to determine how to be more efficient with the services the county provides. Those range from health and human services to economic development, he said.
The data will also be useful to improve customer service as well as determine where and how programs could be better utilized in the future, Hendrickson said.
"We as a county offer services to people who need them most," he said.
Elsewhere in the region, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties had about twice as many babies born as people die. They also had more immigrants move in than residents move to other parts of the country.
That helped Stanislaus grow by 4,510 to 522,651, a gain of 0.87 percent.
San Joaquin grew by 6,141 people to 699,003, a 0.89-percent increase.
Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa counties all lost population. More people died in those foothills than were born, and very few immigrants settled there during the year.
Nearly 110,000 more Californians left the state than moved in from elsewhere in America. Much of that domestic loss was countered by the nearly 96,500 foreigners who immigrated to the state.
Department of Finance population estimates are based on aggregate data from various sources, including birth and death records, number of driver's licenses and driver's license address changes, housing unit data, school enrollment counts, and federal income tax returns.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Modesto Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti contributed to this report.