Union Democrat staff

To rural politicians, it's like the ominous sound of an approaching earthquake.

Word that politicians in Sacramento are working on a comprehensive bill aimed at addressing some huge, statewide problem is generally chilling news for those in charge of water districts, school districts, cities and counties up here in the hills.

It means, if past experience is any indication, that Bay Area, Southern California and Central Valley politicians are about to run roughshod over small-town local interests in pursuit of their own agendas and high-dollar slices of pork.

But on getting wind of a multi-billion dollar bill aimed at overhauling California's water system, increasing supply and cleaning up the delta, the Tuolumne Utilities District did not stick its head in the sand.

Instead, the district has worked for more than a year trying to shape the mammoth bill to its advantage. It joined with other western-slope water districts from Mariposa to Nevada City and with the Mountain Counties Water Resource Association and it assigned water-savvy consultant John Mills to the case. General Manager Pete Kampa has put in at least two months' of work, and TUD found an invaluable friend in State Senator Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, the bill's primary author.

"He get's it," said Kampa of Cogdill, who has announced he will not seek reelection next year. "He's down-to-earth, he's a listener and he is dedicated to serving all of his constituent base."

The district has spent more than $20,000 in lobbying for and against provisions in draft versions of the bill, but Kampa said the end product is well worth the effort.

The just-signed $11.1 billion water bond bill not only recognizes county-of-origin rights' held by TUD and other mountain districts, but frees them from Draconian state supervision proposed in earlier versions of the bill and sets aside millions of dollars' worth of cash solely for projects proposed in the foothills and mountains.

TUD's Kampa is reluctant to call it pork, but the bill has enough good things in it that he will recommend a yes vote on the measure when it appears on the ballot next November.

A brief look at a few of the bill's pluses:

• Maps of the delta region that in earlier bills scooped up much of the Sierra Nevada foothills have been eliminated, as has a plan to have a delta "water master" making decisions affecting the Mother Lode.

• Also gone are fees and assessment which would have been levied on mountain and foothill customers for delta improvements.

• It includes recognition of TUD's right, through PG&E, to about 24,500 acre-feet of water annually from the South Fork of the Stanislaus River. At present, the district uses about 17,000 acre-feet annually.

• It offers mountain areas and some other regions' flexibility in meeting 20 percent water-use reductions mandated by 2020.

• It sets aside $44 million for water supply projects the mountain-county area, meaning districts like TUD will not have to compete against huge valley and urban agencies for funds.

• The Sierra Nevada Conservancy will receive $75 million, some of which could go to a $45 million TUD proposal to dredge, clean up and increase the capacity of Phoenix Lake.

• Another $89 million will go to a small-community wastewater grant program.

"You might not even notice the new state taxes you'll pay under this bond," said Kampa. "But without it, you'd certainly notice the rate increases you'd face."

After a briefing on the water bond earlier this month, TUD Director Ralph Retherford led a standing ovation in honor of the district's work shaping the bill.

We join that ovation and extend it to Senator Cogdill, who didn't forget his foothill and mountain constituents in the process.