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Accurate 2020 population count faces challenge concerning oil workers, families

WILLISTON, N.D. - Getting an accurate count of North Dakota's population in 2020 will require working with local communities and educating people about who should be counted as residents, the Census Bureau director said Wednesday. John Thompson h...

Census Bureau Director John Thomson, third from left, listens to Williston Mayor Ward Koeser, second from left, during a meeting with leaders of Oil Patch communities on Wednesday, May 7, 2014, in Williston, N.D. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service



WILLISTON, N.D. – Getting an accurate count of North Dakota’s population in 2020 will require working with local communities and educating people about who should be counted as residents, the Census Bureau director said Wednesday.

John Thompson heard from leaders of Oil Patch communities during a meeting in Williston about challenges to count the influx of oil workers and their families.

“If they are living and staying here most of the time, this is where they should be counted,” Thompson said during his third day visiting North Dakota, the nation’s fastest-growing state.


Between now and 2020, it will be important for the Census Bureau to work with North Dakota cities to develop a database of addresses, using GIS data and other information, Thompson said.

“We can’t get too far behind,” Thompson said.

Prior to 2020, the Census Bureau will need to have staff walk through the rapidly growing North Dakota communities to accurately assess where the housing units are, Thompson said.

“We’re going to have to go out right before the census and understand it firsthand,” he said.

Leaders of several western North Dakota cities told Thompson the 2010 census data undercounted their populations, and since then they’ve experienced rapid growth.

Watford City’s official population is 1,744 residents, but the municipal sewer accommodates 6,500 people, Mayor Brent Sanford said.

In Dickinson, the 2010 census showed a population of 17,787, but city officials now estimate that to be nearly 30,000, said Matt Kolling, Dickinson’s assistant city administrator and city attorney.

“The challenges are enormous,” Kolling said.


The national census count affects how much federal and state funding communities receive.

Communities can request that the Census Bureau issue a new certified count prior to 2020, but the local community has to pay for it, Thompson said.

Sanford said Watford City leaders have discussed the possibility of a special census because if its population was more than 5,000, that would have implications for federal transportation dollars.

Williston City Commissioner Brad Bekkedahl said people who work most of the time in North Dakota may be reluctant to be counted as North Dakota residents because they’re afraid of losing hunting rights or voting privileges in their home states.

Thompson said the Census Bureau does not share data with any other agencies. Williston leaders said it will be important to get that message out to people before 2020.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions,” Bekkedahl said.

Thompson also said the Census Bureau will develop local partnerships to best assess how to count people and what time to try to find them at home.

Stanley Mayor Mike Hynek said in an interview he was disappointed with the city’s 2010 count, but he said it would be difficult for anyone to do accurately unless they were familiar with the territory.


“I just think it was really hard to do and I think it would take a special effort on anyone’s part to really get an accurate count,” Hynek said in an interview. “To do it right would be a huge task.”

Williston Mayor Ward Koeser told Thompson he’ll likely need to bring workers into North Dakota to conduct the census, due to the lack of available workers, and may need to provide housing for them.

North Dakota is the first state Thompson has toured since becoming director in August. He was invited by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. Thompson was in Fargo and Bismarck earlier this week before driving through Dickinson and Watford City on his way to Williston.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Thompson said.

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