Union Democrat staff

"Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over."

Whether Mark Twain actually said those words is a matter of some conjecture. But their accuracy, especially here in California, is beyond debate.

Even now we in the Mother Lode are fighting over how much water San Francisco can take from the Tuolumne River, how much it should be fined for siphoning off too much, whether an $11.1 billion water bond issue before voters in November is a good idea, if we should pipe our water ditches, how many trout the Department of Fish and Game should plant in our waterways, and how California can survive a fourth year of drought.

It's enough to turn a man - or woman - to whiskey.

But with key water decisions looming in 2010, it's probably best to remain sober.

We'll begin with San Francisco, who some have yet to forgive for hijacking 360,000 acre-feet of our mountain water for millions of thirsty Bay Area city dwellers nearly a century ago. But the Raker Act passed in 1913, reservoirs and dams were built and now we must deal with it.

The later chapter of Dealing With It is wrestling with San Francisco's request to up its take to 300 million gallons a day.

In a compromise reached with the Tuolumne River Trust, Tuolumne County and other agencies affected, San Francisco agreed not to exceed the current 265 million gallon per-day limit until 2018, when the ceiling would rise to the requested 300 million.

A sticking point, however, is how much Hetch Hetchy should pay in fines - which will fund environmental enhancement projects in the Sierra Nevada - for exceeding the limit. In a bizarre and questionable arrangement, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission - which basically runs the water system - will set the fines itself.

Fox in the hen house?

Perhaps, but both the City of San Francisco and the River Trust are confident the self-imposed fines will be fair. As river levels are the key to healthy fisheries and prosperous rafting here in Tuolumne County, those fines are worth keeping an eye on.

Then there's the multi-billion dollar overhaul of the California water system approved by the Legislature earlier this year.

That the bill - which calls for water-use reduction, fines for illegal diversion, groundwater monitoring, re-plumbing the failing Sacramento-San Joaquin and more - passed at all is something of a miracle. For this we can thank State Senator Dave Cogdill, Tuolumne County's representative in the upper chamber and, as it turns out, a deft negotiator with a talent for compromise.

In engineering the bill, called the most comprehensive California water program in a half century, the Modesto lawmaker brought together Republicans and Democrats, legislators from cities and from farm country and representatives of a wide spectrum of special interests.

Not only that, but the Modesto Republican worked with Tuolumne Utilities District Manager Pete Kampa to assure TUD would maintain its water rights and escape Draconian state supervision in earlier versions of the legislation.

Cogdill, who said drafting and engineering passage of the bill was "the pinnacle" of his career, should indeed be congratulated. But a huge question remains:

Will voters in November approve the $11.1 billion bond issue which would fund the entire program?

Amid a recession and a griding California budget crisis, voters may look askance at even the most meritorious and even-handed ballot proposals. But the consequences of rejection are dire: "We'd be back to Square 1," said Cogdill, who is retiring and won't be around to lead a second charge.

If that's not enough to worry about, consider the latest snow-survey results from the state's Department of Water Resources: The Sierra snow pack is just 85 percent of normal, meaning California could emerge from a dry winter amid its fourth straight year of a drought.

Which means it's time to pray for rain.

Either that or order another round of Mark Twain's whiskey.