LA PAZ COUNTY, Ariz. — La Paz County has long had a reputation for being one of Arizona's most rural, remote communities.
Its open, untouched landscapes have regularly appealed to travelers looking to escape urban life or recreationists looking to quietly sail down the Colorado River.
The town of Quartzsite notably served as one of the shooting locations for "Nomadland," the Oscar-winning film about drifters forming a community in a barren desert.
But federal data suggests La Paz County has gotten much more rural in recent years.
Nearly 4,000 of the region's residents have left, leaving La Paz County with a population that's 19% smaller than in 2010.
No other county in Arizona has lost this much of its population. In fact, census figures show the state's urban areas -- Maricopa and Pima counties -- have experienced major growth over the last decade.
So La Paz's elected leaders have been left wondering what went wrong during the census count and if they might need to challenge the results.
"I think the federal government failed us," said La Paz County Supervisor Duce Minor. "It's just ludicrous."
He knew the pandemic might have caused some problems in counting residents, but Minor didn't expect the Census Bureau to record such a significant loss in population.
The county was expecting to grow, Minor said since they've seen more economic development over the last decade. In 2014, Rose Acre Farms announced it was buying 2,600 acres in La Paz County to build an egg farm that would generate lots of new jobs.
"Nobody can understand what's going on," Minor added. "It's just not making sense."
Census numbers are important for local leaders like Minor. They determine how voting districts will be drawn and how much money the federal government will allocate to local municipalities.
The more people a county has, the more money it can expect to get. So the losses recorded in La Paz might affect the county's budget in the coming years.
Poor census numbers can additionally scare away developers from bringing new restaurants or retail stores to areas that appear to have small populations.
La Paz County could support the arrival of a Trader Joe's location, Minor said, but it may never get one now since the grocery store company probably wouldn't like the county's new census figures.
Before the census was completed last year, volunteers and La Paz County residents repeatedly urged locals to report their census paperwork.
Throughout the summer of 2020, census volunteers reminded La Paz County how the area's reporting figures were hovering around 20% and pressed residents to get their information filed before the government's deadline.
"Quartzsite, you need to be counted in order to get some much-needed funds and services," a local resident wrote on Facebook last May, "they gotta know we’re here."
By the end of last August, the county's self-response rate was 23% -- one of the lowest in Arizona and far behind the reporting rates seen in La Paz County during the 2010 census count, according to the Parker Pioneer.
An obvious flaw to the census count is how it represents the many part-time residents who only live in La Paz County during the winter months.
The census asks each citizen to report where they were living on April 1, 2020. If a winter resident had gone back to their other residence before April 1, then they wouldn't be counted in La Paz County.
But most of Arizona is known as a destination for winter visitors and other counties didn't report the same amount of losses as La Paz.
Pinal County attracts many seasonal residents in the cooler months, yet its population grew by 13% in the 2020 census.
Supervisor Minor said he had expected to see more part-time residents staying in Arizona since the pandemic might have restricted their abilities to travel.
It seemed the pandemic might have played to the county's advantage, he added, but the census clearly indicates that wasn't the case in 2020.
The process of challenging a census count can take several months and requires several steps before a resolution is reached.
The Census Bureau did not immediately respond to questions about the counting that was done in La Paz County.
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