Sonoma County's population inched up in 2011 while the number of people in Lake and Mendocino counties continued a slow decline.
The lack of meaningful growth was mirrored in statewide figures released Tuesday by the Department of Finance showing California's population rose by less than 1 percent to just under 37.7 million people.
Economists said in most cases it's a sign people are staying put as they ride out the recession.
Also, the growth in ethnic populations isn't happening as fast as expected, said Robert Eyler, head of the Center for Regional and Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University.
"The bottom line is people are still reeling from the recession," Eyler said. "You're seeing people staying in one place."
From Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, Sonoma County's population rose by less than a half-percent, topping out at 487,011.
Windsor was the fastest growing of the nine cities, climbing seven-tenths of a percent to 27,003. Santa Rosa's population rose by half a percent to 168,841.
Cloverdale, Cotati, Rohnert Park and Sonoma had the least growth, just 0.1 percent.
The number of births and deaths in Sonoma County in 2011 was not immediately available Tuesday.
Lake County's population slumped for the second year, dropping by 1.7 percent to 63,266. The town of Lakeport saw the biggest decline at 2 percent, ending the year with 4,622 people.
Mendocino County's population inched downward by two-tenths of a percent to 87,572. Willits led the declines at a half-percent, ending the year with 4,857 residents.
Lake and Mendocino counties are bucking the stay-put trend, Eyler said "Probably what you're seeing is the out migration of workers and people who need to move to where the economy is a little more robust," he said. "Those counties are not recovering as quickly."
However, Eyler warned the exact reason for the drop in Lake and Mendocino counties won't be known until more detailed information is released in about 18 months by the U.S. Census.
"Employment and population dynamics don't necessarily walk hand-in-hand," he said.
California's population also grew at less than 1 percent in 2010, but the growth rate still is equivalent to adding a city roughly the size of Modesto each year.
The nation's second most populous state, Texas, grew at a rate of 2.1 percent, to nearly 25.7 million, according to Census figures.
The slow growth in California is reflected in the housing industry, which has been in a slump since the recession began in late 2007.
Finance department demographers say the state added 35,500 residential units in 2011, compared to 198,000 units during the peak year of 2005.
In 2011, less than 17,000 of the new units were single-family homes, a decline of 5,700 from the year before.
Some of the steepest population drops were in Central Valley towns that are home to prisons where the number of inmates is declining.
The state has begun implementing Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to send more lower-level convicts to county jails, which saves the state money and conforms to a federal court order to reduce the prison population.
All the state's most populous cities posted gains, including Los Angeles, up half a percent to more than 3.8 million; San Diego up 0.9 percent to more than 1.3 million; San Jose up 1.5 percent to 971,372; San Francisco up half a percent to 812,538 and Fresno, up 1.5 percent to 505,000.