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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 being in agriculture and government, Columbia County has had marginally stable economy. Nevertheless, employment activities have picked up 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. Construction of the project started March 2011.

Ski Bluewood, the local ski area that was in danger of being closed in the fall of 2010, was purchased by a local ownership group. This change in ownership ensured that the local ski area continued to operate through the winter of 2011 and into the future. 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 are growing for the past three years include agricultural commodities, wholesale trade of durable goods, transportation and warehousing.

The higher proportion of elderly residents (24.8 percent) will continue to increase the 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 a tourist destination for its historic preservation appeal and in turn is investing in the accommodation and food services industry, with 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 civilian labor force was at 1,490 in June 2013, which was slightly down (30) from June 2012. The number employed was also marginally down to 1,340 in June 2013 from 1,370 in June 2012. Yearly averages in the labor force show volatility in the local employment market, with two to three year boom and bust cycles, which are associated with the agricultural economic base.

The average annual unemployment rate in Columbia County hit a low in 2007 at 6.6 percent and it has been higher since then. In 2012 the average annual unemployment rate was 10.2 percent. The unemployment rate fluctuates throughout the year, reflecting seasonal employment, with lows in September or October each year and peaks in January or February. The June 2013 unemployment rate was 10.0 percent, up from June 2012’s rate at 9.9 percent.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Columbia County total employment is very small, contributing only a marginally to the State’s workforce at 0.04 percent. Total employment in 2012 was down by 14.6 percent from the 2002 level of 1,473. Over the year, total employment in Columbia County increased by 1.5 percent, which marks two years of total employment increases.

  • Goods-producing employment averaged 254 in 2012 and makes up 19.6 percent of total employment. Agriculture accounts for the majority of these jobs. From its most recent peak in 2008 of 424, goods-producing employment decreased as construction and food manufacturing contracted due to closures of local manufacturing plants and the recession effects on construction.
  • Service-providing employment averaged 1,004 in 2012, down by 0.8 percent from 2011 average. Columbia County service-providing employment is 11.6 percent private trade, transportation and utilities (mainly wholesale trade), 4.0 percent information and financial activities, and 49.5 percent government employment.
  • Government employment averaged 460 in 2012, which was up from 2011 by 1.8 percent.

The preliminary estimates show a slow nonagricultural growth in 2013 with the first quarter average at 1,227, which is 6.1 percent higher than first quarter of 2012.

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 2011 was the 55 and over age group comprising 25.2 percent of the workforce. They were closely followed by 45 to 54 year-olds with 24.6 percent of the workforce, showing that the county’s workforce is aging.

In 2011, 53.5 percent of all industry jobs were held by men and 46.5 percent were held by women. Industry differences are discussed below:

  • Male-dominated industries included wholesale trade (85.9 percent), construction (84.6 percent), manufacturing (81.2 percent), and agriculture (78.3 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included information (86.0 percent), health care (79.2 percent), finance and insurance (78.4 percent), and accommodation and food services (71.1 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 2012, Columbia County had 1,258 jobs covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of over $44.8 million.

The county annual average wage was $35,643 in 2012, which is well below the state’s average annual wage of $51,964 in 2012. In 2012, Columbia County was ranked 17th in average annual wages among 39 counties in the state.

The Columbia County median hourly wage was $17.86 in 2012, which was well below the state’s median hourly wage of $21.59.

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 2011 the per capita income in Columbia County was $39,259, which is up by 8.0 percent from 2010 income of $36,365. Nonetheless, income was well below the state’s per capita income of $43,878 according to Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Median household income over the period 2007 to 2011 was $44,038 well below the state’s $58,890, according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts.

Over the period 2007 to 2011, 15.4 percent of the population was living below the poverty level in Columbia County. This compares to 12.5 percent of the state.



(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

According to the Census of 2012, Columbia County population was counted at 3,995. 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 largest city is Dayton with population of 2,535 in 2012. The second noticeable city is Starbuck with population of 130 people.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County Washington state
Population 2012 3,995 6,897,012
Population 2000 4,064 5,894,121
Percent change, 2000 to 2012 -1.7% 17.0%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County has a large retirement community with 24.8 percent of the population being 65 years and older.

  • Columbia County’s population age 65 and older was 24.8 percent in 2012 compared to the state’s 13.2 percent.
  • Those under 18 years of age make up 18.4 percent in 2012 compared to the state’s 23.0 percent.
  • The youngest age group, those under 5 years of age, was 3.9 percent in 2012, much smaller when compared to the state’s 6.4 percent.

Females made up 50.0 percent of the county’s population, which is slightly below the state’s 50.1 percent.

Diversity in the county shows 89.5 percent of residents are white non-Hispanics, with 6.0 percent of Hispanic or Latino origin compared to the state’s 71.6 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Columbia County Washington state
Population by age, 2010    
Under 5 years old 3.9% 6.4%
Under 18 years old 18.4% 23.0%
65 years and older 24.8% 13.2%
Females, 2010 50.0% 50.1%
Race/ethnicity, 2010
White 94.7% 81.6%
Black 0.5% 3.9%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.5% 1.8%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 1.2% 8.4%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 6.0% 11.7%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Over the period 2007 to 2011, 87.5 percent of individuals age 25 and older were high school graduates, which is marginally lower than that of Washington State (89.8 percent) and higher than the nation (85 percent).

Over the same period, it is estimated that 18.0 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 (31.4 percent).