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Officials question ND Oil Patch census numbers

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Bakken Dickinson, 58602
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

MINOT -- Population growth immediately following a natural disaster isn't typical. So Minot's growth following the 2011 Souris River flood is not only atypical, but local officials suspect the growth rate has been faster than the 1.8 percent increase estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau.

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Area Oil Patch cities also appear to be growing faster than indicated in July 2012 population estimates, released in late May by the Census Bureau for cities and townships. The bureau released county estimates earlier this year.

Minot's estimate of 43,746 is up 1.8 percent from July 2011 and 7 percent since the official 2010 census.

City manager David Waind told the Minot Daily News that the city has been estimating its population at close to 50,000.

Kevin Iverson, who manages census data for the North Dakota Commerce Department, said Minot's housing upheaval following the June 2011 flood could have affected the data collections that went into the estimates.

Waind said hotel residents, families doubled up in homes and other factors likely skewed the estimate. He said the city is fairly confident in its numbers based on water bills, building permits and other measures.

"We are not exaggerating approaching 50,000," he said.

Following the 1997 flood, Grand Forks' population dropped from more than 50,000 to below that threshold in 2000, when it began growing again. Joplin, Mo., also dropped below 50,000 in the 2012 estimates after a devastating tornado occurred a month before Minot's flood. Only 3.7 percent of America's cities had populations of 50,000 or more in 2012.

Minot's 1.8 percent estimated growth compares with 3 percent estimated growth last year in Bismarck and 2 percent in Fargo.

The boom continued west of Minot with 25 percent growth in Watford City and 13.6 percent growth in Williston between 2011 and 2012. Williston, estimated at 18,532 residents, is up 26 percent since the official census. Watford City, at 2,482 residents, is up 42 percent.

Watford City Mayor Brent Sanford said the Census Bureau's city numbers don't include hundreds of people living in campers, mobile homes and camps within five miles of the town. Rural McKenzie County is estimated to be home to 5,101 residents outside of Watford City, Alexander, 269, and Arnegard, 135. However, Sanford believes the actual numbers are much higher. The town estimates its service area includes nearly 10,000 people.

"It's very chaotic. When you move around the town, you feel that there's five to six times more people," Sanford said of the growth. "It just feels crowded."

Watford City has been preparing for long-term growth by expanding its footprint through annexations and building its infrastructure. This summer will see construction of long-term housing and the beginning of a bypass highway and other road improvements that ultimately will alleviate the pressure, he said.

"It's coming. The city has a plan for it, and we have a good plan. We have developers in town who understand the playing field that we have to build permanent and build nice," Sanford said. "In the meantime, it's kind of painful."

The biggest eyebrow raiser in the North Dakota census report was the drop in estimated population in the Oil Patch cities of Ray and Tioga.

"I cannot possibly fathom that is an accurate statement," said broker Tate Cymbaluk with Basin Brokers, a real-estate firm in Williston. Both communities have seen considerable construction and demands on their infrastructures, and Cymbaluk said the housing market is strong for appropriately priced homes. Houses are not sitting empty, he said.

Ray is estimated at 609 residents, down from 627 in 2011. Tioga is estimated at 1,244, down from 1,287.

The current estimates aren't the final word, though, because the Census Bureau retroactively updates its numbers as better information becomes available. For instance, Minot's July 2011 population, originally estimated last year at 42,485, has since been revised to 42,977.

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