Skip Navigation

Home : Reports, data & tools : County Profiles : Columbia County Profile

Columbia County Profile

Overview | Geographic facts | Outlook | Labor force and unemployment |
Industry employment | Wages and Income | Population


Regional context

Columbia County was carved out of Walla Walla County in 1875. County covers only 868.63 square miles of land, ranking 31st in size among Washington’s 39 counties. Columbia County is located in southeastern Washington, borders the Oregon state line to its south, Whitman County and the Snake River to its north, Walla Walla County to its west and Garfield County to its east. Columbia County has the 3rd smallest population in the state with population density of 4.7 people per square mile. The County is mostly agricultural land that’s specialized in farming, especially wheat, asparagus and green peas as well as ranching and logging. Today, agriculture and food processing are still dominant along with food manufacturing and local government.

Local economy

The Columbia County area was home to many tribes including Palouse, Nez Perce, Yakama, Wanapum, Walla Walla, and Umatilla. Breeding, trading and selling horses was a central part of tribal existence. Later trading became one of the primary economic activities as fur and goods trading companies moved into the area with pioneers. As pioneers started settling in the area agricultural and ranching activities prospered as demand for produce and meats grew with new influx of gold rush pioneers.

Due to employment activities primarily centered in agriculture and government, Columbia County has had marginally stable economy. Nevertheless, employment activities have developed a small seasonal pattern for the past five years mainly due to new wind projects, such as Hopkins Ridge, Marengo and the Dayton wind farms. Recent work has been started to reestablish food processing in the county with the new Blue Mountain Station project. This project will serve as a food processing business incubator, blending sustainable, locally grown produce with food and organic food production.

Ski Bluewood, the local ski area’s change in ownership ensured that the local ski area continued to operate. This local skiing facility is an important source of tourism and seasonal employment for residents across the region.


Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County Rank in state
Land area, 2010 (square miles) 868.63 31
Persons per square mile, 2010 4.7 36



Over the years commodity base industries have contributed the most to Columbia County growth. The wheat crop is in high demand and has been very profitable in the past couple of years. Commodities across most markets have continued to benefit from changing levels of global trade, demand and monetary valuations. Industries that have been growing for the past three years include: agricultural commodities, wholesale trade of durable goods, transportation and warehousing.

The higher proportion of 65 years and over residents (25.5 percent) will continue to increase demand for local health care services, which in Columbia County are mostly included in the government sector. Healthcare and social services is projected to increase at a faster than average rate.

Columbia County is becoming tourist destination for its Historic preservation appeal and in turn is expending in accommodation and food services industry with a ten year average annual growth rate of 1.1 percent. This segment is expected to continue growing in upcoming years.

Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

Current labor force and unemployment statistics are available on the Labor area summaries page.

Columbia County’s civilian labor force was at 1,450 in 2013, which was slightly down (-30) from 2012. The number employed was also marginally down to 1,300 in 2013 from 1,330 in 2012. Yearly averages in the labor force show volatility in the local employment market with two to three year boom and bust cycles, which is associated with the agricultural economic base.

The unemployment rate fluctuates throughout the year, reflecting the seasonal employment, with lows in September or October each year and peaks in January or February. The 2013 unemployment rate was 10.1 percent, down from 2012’s rate of 10.5 percent.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

Current industry employment statistics are available on the Labor area summaries page.

Columbia County’s total employment is very small, contributing only marginally to the state’s economy. Total employment in 2013 was down by 0.2 percent from 2012 level of 1,258.

  • Goods-producing employment averaged 240 in 2013 and it makes up only 19.1 percent of total employment. Agriculture makes up the majority of the goods producing industry segment. From its most recent peak in 2009 of 424, goods-producing employment decreased as construction and food manufacturing contracted due to closures of local manufacturing plants and the recession’s effect on construction. However, Columbia county is holding steady over the past couple years mainly due to the wind farm construction projects in the area.
  • Service-providing employment averaged 1,015 in 2013, up by 1.1 percent from 2012 average. Columbia County service-providing employment is comprised of 12.9 other services, except public administration; 9.8 percent retail trade; 7.7 percent accommodations and food services; 4.2 percent health care and social assistance; 2.9 percent information and financial activities and 47.1 percent government employment.
  • Government employment averaged 478 in 2013, which was up from 2012 by 3.9 percent.

For historical industry employment data, contact an economist.

Industry employment by age and gender

(Source: The Local Employment Dynamics)

The largest jobholder group in Columbia County in 2012 was the 55 and over age group with 25.4 percent of the workforce. They were closely followed by 45 to 54 year-olds with 24.2 percent of the workforce, showing that the county workforce is aging.

In 2012, 53.9 percent of all industry jobs were held by men and 46.1 percent were held by women. Industry differences are discussed below:

  • Male-dominated industries included administrative and waste management (100.0 percent), wholesale trade (86.4 percent), construction (85.2 percent), manufacturing (82.9 percent) and agriculture (81.8 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included information (86.5 percent), professional, scientific and technical services (82.9 percent), health care (79.3 percent), finance and insurance (79.1 percent) and educational services (65.4 percent).

Wages and income

(Source: Employment Security Department; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Economic Analysis; U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey)

In 2013, Columbia County had 1,255 jobs covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of over $44.4 million.

The county annual average wage was $35,418 in 2013, which is well below the state’s average annual wage of $53,029 in 2013. In 2013, Columbia County was ranked 17th in the state for average annual wages among 39 counties in the state.

The Columbia County median hourly wage was $17.73 in 2012, which was well below the state’s median hourly wage of $21.64.

Personal income

Personal income includes earned income, investment income, and government payments such as Social Security and Veterans Benefits. Investment income includes income imputed from pension funds and from owning a home. Per capita personal income equals total personal income divided by the resident population.

In 2012 the per capita income in Columbia County was $41,819, which is well below the state’s per capita income of $46,045 according to Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Median household income over the period 2008 to 2012 was $45,417 well below the state’s $59,374, according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts.

Over the period 2008 to 2012, 13.2 percent of the population was living below the poverty level in Columbia County. This compares to 12.9 percent of the state.



(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

According to the Census of 2013, Columbia County population was estimated to be 4,032. Population growth in Columbia County for the past twenty years has been at 0.1 percent and last ten years there were no significant changes in population. Population in the county is expected to remain stable.

The Columbia County seat and the largest city is Dayton with population of 2,545 in 2013. The second noticeable city is Starbuck with population of 130 people.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County Washington state
Population 2013 4,032 6,971,406
Population 2010 4,078 6,724,540
Percent change, 2010 to 2013 -1.1% 3.7%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County has a large retirement community with 25.5 percent of the population being 65 years and older.

  • Columbia County’s population age 65 and older was 25.5 percent in 2013 compared to the state’s 13.6 percent.
  • Those under 18 years of age made up 19.1 percent in 2013 compared to the state’s 22.9 percent.
  • The youngest age group, those under 5 years of age, was 3.8 percent in 2013, much smaller when compared to the state’s 6.4 percent.

Females made up 50.5 percent of the county’s population, which is slightly below the state’s 50.0 percent.

Diversity in the county shows 94.4 percent of residents are white, with 6.3 percent persons of Hispanic or Latino origin when compared to the state’s 81.2 percent and 11.9 percent, respectively.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County Washington state
Population by age, 2013    
Under 5 years old 3.8% 6.4%
Under 18 years old 19.1% 22.9%
65 years and older 25.5% 13.6%
Females, 2013 50.5% 50.0%
Race/ethnicity, 2013
White 94.4% 81.2%
Black 0.5% 4.0%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.7% 1.9%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 1.0% 8.6%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 6.3% 11.9%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Over the period 2008 to 2012, 87.7 percent of individuals age 25 and older were high school graduates, which is marginally lower than that of Washington state (90.0 percent).

Over the same period, it’s estimated that 18.7 percent of people in Columbia County 25 and older have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher. This figure does not compare favorably with the state (31.6 percent).