A Look at Population Trends in Eastern Oregon

March 17, 2022

Portland State University’s (PSU) annual population estimates show that Eastern Oregon’s population continued to increase in 2021. This is in line with the long-term trend of a growing population in both the state and the region overall. PSU’s Population Research Center does extensive work to create the annual population estimates for the state and counties, as well as incorporated and unincorporated areas. Detailed data focused on age demographics and the components of population change are also available.

County Change

The population increased in 2021 in six of Eastern Oregon’s eight counties. Grant and Union counties saw the scale tip the opposite direction. Growth was 0.4% for the region overall, which represents a positive change from 2020’s over-the-year loss of -0.9%. The region saw the population decrease in all but two counties in 2020. Eastern Oregon’s over-the-year rate in 2021 was close to the state’s growth rate of 0.5%. Oregon’s population growth slowed during the pandemic with a gain of 0.2% in 2020. The state’s five-year trend dropped to 4.7% in 2021 from 5.7% in 2020. The five-year-trend (2016 to 2021) for growth was 1.1% in Eastern Oregon, a slight decrease from the previous five-year-trend (2015 to 2020) of 1.3%.  
Wallowa County saw the least growth for the year among the region’s gainers, but the second fastest growth rate for the five-year period. The county added 32 residents in 2021 for a gain of 0.4% and a five-year gain of 4.1%, up 293 since 2016. Morrow County welcomed the most new residents (+418) in 2021 with a gain of 3.4% and a five-year gain of 7.6% (+890). Morrow also grew at the fastest pace among the counties in the region. Malheur County showed sizeable growth over the year as well, adding 369 residents for a gain of 1.2%. Baker and Harney showed sizable growth over the five-year period with gains of 2.1% and 3.0%, respectively.

Grant County’s five-year loss dipped to 184 with the county’s population decreasing by 2.5% since 2016. Grant experienced a loss of 13 residents over the year. Union County showed a large decrease over the year (-1.6%), which heavily weights the decrease for the five-year period (-1.7%). A sizeable portion of the loss is likely from the college age demographic, as Eastern Oregon University’s on-campus student enrollment has declined during the pandemic. Soon to be released population by demographic data should help to shed more light on the subject.

City Change

Incorporated cities in Eastern Oregon totaled 128,264 residents in 2021, two-thirds of the region’s total population. These cities ranged from three residents in Greenhorn to 19,696 residents in Hermiston. Thirty cities had a population under 1,000 with a combined population of 9,838. These smaller cities decreased in population over the year by 3.2% overall (-329 residents). Just one-third of the region’s smaller cities showed population gains in 2021. Five-year change was negative as well with a loss of 3.8%, down 389 residents. Nine small cities saw gains for the five-year period with Cove in the lead, Halfway in second, and North Powder in a virtual tie with Huntington for third.  

Twenty-three cities had a population above 1,000 with a combined population of 118,426. Total over-the-year growth came in at 0.3% or just 311 residents for these larger cities; 10 cities had gains while 13 showed losses. Five-year growth was 3.5% overall or 4,031 residents. The accompanying table shows a slightly larger total population because John Day and Canyon City (666 residents) were combined as a single population to highlight the total size of the county’s largest urban area. Immediate geographic proximity makes the two function more like a single economy even though they are two separate cities. This also occurs with La Grande/Island City and Burns/Hines; however, each of these four have populations above 1,000, so they did not affect the table’s total population.
Eastern Oregon’s largest city experienced the most growth in 2021. Hermiston added 921 residents; the city also set the fastest pace with a gain of 4.9%. Hermiston’s five-year gain was 11.1%, adding the most residents there as well, up 1,966. Ontario was second for total growth over the year, up 301 or 2.6%. The city’s population was 11,816 in 2021, which ranked fourth in Eastern Oregon. Ontario’s five-year trend was up 351 for a gain of 3.1%. Enterprise had the second fastest growth rate, up 4.3% or 85 residents. The city’s five-year growth rate was 4.8% or 95 residents. Pendleton ranked second for size, but added residents at a leisurely pace, growing just 0.1% in 2021 or 24 residents. Boardman, the eighth largest city, set the fastest pace for growth over the five-year period. The city grew by 22.0%, adding 783 residents, which accounted for 77.1% of Morrow County’s overall five-year gain.

Unincorporated Area Change

Unincorporated areas in Eastern Oregon lost a combined 1,468 residents (-2.3%) in 2021, and 1,653 residents (-2.6%) since 2016. County land that does not fall within city boundaries had a total population of 62,180. Umatilla, Malheur, and Union counties ranked first through third, respectively, and accounted for nearly 70% of Eastern Oregon’s unincorporated population. Each of these counties saw a decrease in the unincorporated population over the year as well as since 2016. The other five counties saw population gains in unincorporated areas since 2016, with only Baker seeing a decrease over the year.
City boundary growth has historically played a relatively minor role in over-the-year population loss, adding unincorporated areas to cities through annexation. The 2021 estimates of loss through annexation will be available in April, as will the county level age demographics, and details of population change by births, deaths, and migration. I’ll dig deeper into the details of the region’s population change at that time. To stay up to date and receive new articles when they’re available, sign up through our Qualityinfo.org subscription page.

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