The nation’s largest agricultural water district contributes $4.7 billion annually to local and regional economies, along with 35,000 jobs, according to a new study commissioned by Westlands Water District.

A study six years earlier pegged it at $3.6 billion and about 28,000 jobs. The district produces 3.5% of the nation’s fruits and nuts and about 5% of the vegetables and melons.

“This agricultural enterprise really dominates the local economy,” said Michael Shires, who led the study and is an associate professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. “There are communities who owe their entire existence to this kind of activity.”

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In a press conference on the study, Shires pointed out that the region is among California’s poorest, with nearly 17% of Fresno County below the federal poverty line. The availability of water “trends exactly” with changes in poverty.

With massive reductions in surface and groundwater, Shires called it time to start thinking outside of the box.

“Many more people's lives are going to be impacted if we do end up curtailing agricultural production significantly,” he said.