Southeastern Washington Sees Slow Population Growth: Walla Walla County Fares Slightly Better

By Dr. Kelley Cullen

From 2020 to 2022, the population of Walla Walla County increased by only 41 people. When compared to the total population of 62,625, that works out to be a 0% increase over a two-year span. Walla Walla Trends 0.1.1 compares the total population and rate of growth for the county benchmarked against the state from 1984 to 2022. Going back to 2017, the county’s population has only increased by 2% in total over the past five years, compared to the state total growth rate of 7.5%. Looking back even further, we see that over the last decade while Washington as a whole has grown in population by 15%, Walla Walla County has only increased by 6%.

This slow population growth is not unique to Walla Walla County, but rather is a regional issue. Neighboring counties in southeast Washington saw even slower growth over the last five years. Asotin County only grew by 1.4% while both Whitman and Columbia Counties actually experienced decreases in population.

The county’s slow population growth does not appear to have been expected. Looking at the Growth Management Act (GMA) projections from the Office of Financial Management (OFM) completed in 2017, the county was predicted to grow by over 1,600 residents between 2020 to 2025 – at an average rate of over 300 people per year. In the first two years, the increase has been far below that expected level, a mere increase of 41 people. Every five years, the OFM revises their 25-year projections with the next updates coming at the end of this year. It is likely the newer estimates will reflect the slower growth being experienced across the county and region.

So, what might be contributing to this relatively slow growth in population? One reason is that the natural increase in population has been negative for Walla Walla County for the past two years.  This means that deaths have exceeded births. Whereas the OFM forecast suggested that there would be about 760 births annually between 2020 to 2025, the first two years of 2020 to 2022 have averaged less than 600 births per year – a significant difference. In fact, the last five years have only averaged around 600 births per year.

In contrast, deaths have been higher than expected. In the last two years, the county has averaged over 700 deaths per year compared to the forecasted 585 per year from 2020 to 2025. According to the Walla Walla County Covid-19 Dashboard, there have been 150 Covid-19 related deaths to-date. After subtracting the excess deaths during the pandemic, overall mortality was still higher than expected. In part, this could be due to the higher percentage of people over age 65 in the county (21%) compared to the state average of only 17%.  Walla Walla Trends 0.1.3 shows the share of population by age groups in the county.

Thus, the fewer births combined with the greater number of deaths has led to this negative natural increase, thereby keeping a lid on recent population growth.

There is some good news in the form of net migration. Another component of population growth is the amount of people moving into and out of the county in a given year. The OFM forecast currently predicts positive net migration (more people moving into the county than leaving) to continue. From 2020 to 2025, the forecast calls for an overall net influx of around 750 new residents (an average of about 150 per year.) The last five years have been stronger than forecasted in averaging over 250 people per year in net migration. After the pandemic year of 2020, from 2021 to 2022 there was a bump of over 600 people in net migration. Keep in mind that some of these could be students returning to in-person instruction.

What does all of this mean for the local economy? It depends. Typically, positive net migration brings with it increased consumption and employment effects. However, if the net migration is older and consists of retirees, an increase in consumption will ensue but not a corresponding increase in the labor force.  A graying of the population could cause labor shortages which might be made worse by competition for housing.

The hot housing market in the county has seen median home resale prices increase by nearly 20% since 2020 and 34% since first quarter of 2019. Walla Walla Trends 5.1.1 tracks median home resale prices quarterly from the Washington State Center for Real Estate Research. This could be due to retirees finding Walla Walla desirable. At the same time, the rising house prices could put a strain on workers who need affordable housing. It is important for communities to have available housing for all income levels.

It will be interesting to see how the OFM revises its projections for the county by the end of the year. Most will agree that, slow growth is better than no growth or even negative growth, as some surrounding counties are facing.