The East Bay's largest water district says the most ambitious attempt to reform state water policy in at least a decade is a bare-knuckled water grab by Southern California that will cost its 1.3 million customers money and deeper rationing in droughts.

A neighboring district, meanwhile, views the package as a step in the right direction. The Concord-based Contra Costa Water District says it would support the package with a few modest tweaks because it would place a higher standard on changes already in the works.

As key lawmakers face a deadline today for a water deal, why do neighboring districts that together serve most of the East Bay have such different views?

The answer lies in the plumbing.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District — like the San Francisco Public Utilities District, which has a similar water system — has mostly stayed out of fights over the Delta.

That's because the older and smaller EBMUD and SFPUC take their water upstream from the Mokelumne and Tuolumne rivers and carry it around the Delta, much like the controversial peripheral canal they oppose for Southern California.

The problems in the Delta started when Southern California and San Joaquin Valley farms tapped into the estuary with massive pumping plants. To guarantee a more stable supply of water and avoid conflicts with endangered species damaged by the pumps, Southern California interests have backed the idea of a canal to draw water from upstream and divert it around the Delta.

EBMUD officials worry they would have to give up some of their water allocations to maintain Delta flows once a canal is built.

"The pumps caused the problem," EBMUD lobbyist Randy Kanouse said. "We're not going to repair systems and mitigate harm that has been caused by others."

EBMUD officials see the Delta package as a water grab that was first negotiated by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Westlands Water District and the Natural Resources Defense Council, and now is being negotiated by a handful of lawmakers and the governor, almost all from Southern California.

"Why are we surprised that Northern California's water was not protected?" Kanouse said. "There was nobody in the room to protect our interests."

Long history

In contrast to EBMUD's relative isolation, the Contra Costa Water District has long fought in the trenches of the Delta's water wars.

The Concord-based district, formed in 1936 as part of the federal Central Valley Project, gets its water from the Delta just downstream of massive state and federal pumps that heavily influence the purity of the water at its intakes.

It sees the package as largely good. The reason: With or without new legislation, the state's biggest water interests, backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, are moving at breakneck speed to build a peripheral canal and rework the Delta water system through an effort called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The package of bills would force the plan to meet higher standards, has sweeping new water conservation requirements and other mandates.

For example, the bills would require the State Water Resources Control Board to determine how much water should remain in the Delta to protect the environment and other "public trust" values before a peripheral canal could be built.

That is not a requirement now.

"Knowing that first is key before you spend the money," said Greg Gartrell, Contra Costa Water District assistant general manager. "The bills put big hurdles on everything they want to do, and that's good. They don't have those hurdles now."

Changes sought

The district is still looking for changes to the bill, primarily one to protect Delta water quality and another to address what it sees as an inequity that subjects regional governments to state oversight but exempts state and federal pumps from the same scrutiny.

The combination of secrecy in the negotiations, the complexity of the package and the speed with which political leaders want to move has raised alarms.

"The way this governor is trying to ramrod it down the backs of people is just wrong," EBMUD Director John Coleman said. "When we're not at the table, how can you perceive this as anything but a water grab?"

Bay Area lawmakers and those from the five Delta counties have been mostly or entirely opposed to the package, which could make passage of any deal difficult unless strong Republican support emerges.

In the end, though, the fate of the package will also rest on how to pay for it.

Lawmakers are increasingly skittish about taking on more debt because higher debt service payments will cut deeper into social services and other programs that were hit hard this year.

But many of the plan's backers insist much of it be financed with general obligation bonds, with the amounts under discussion varying from $8 billion to $12 billion.

Treasurer Bill Lockyer has warned against relying on taxpayers for investments that should be paid by others — for example, the water districts and their ratepayers who benefit from the plan.

Lockyer's spokesman said the treasurer would closely watch how bond language develops.

"If he feels it's unwarranted, he will make his views known in no uncertain terms," spokesman Tom Dresslar said. "The GO (general obligation) well is not bottomless."