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A rift among Utah's congressional delegation over Central Utah Project legislation is the worst the delegation has had in 20 years, and Democratic Rep. Wayne Owens is to blame, Rep. Howard Nielson said Tuesday.

All members of the delegation agree legislation to increase the spending ceiling for the CUP needs to make its way through the House and Senate before Congress adjourns in October. But the season for compromise is waning and the negotiating points are growing fewer.The sticking points are financing proposals for irrigation features in central Utah and in the Uintah basin, and several environmental provisions promoted by Owens.

Nielson told the Central Utah Water Conservancy District Board that Owens has continually pulled tricks on the rest of the delegation during a compromise process that has been going on for several months.

"I don't trust the man, and we've been burned by him three or four times already so far," he said. Owens was in Atlanta at the Democratic National Convention and unavailable to respond.

Nielson also said Owens has had Utah Power & Light do much of the legal work on environmental portions of the bill. He said Owens is obviously out to "stick it to public power."

Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, who also addressed the board Tuesday, said the CUP has taken more of his time during his 14 years in the Senate than any other piece of legislation or project in the state. He said he's already compromised with Owens more than he wanted to to see the legislation make it out of committee and to the House and Senate floors.

Owens' bill is strong on environmental provisions. Nielson said it contains a lot of "dessert" and treats some of the project's meat and potatoes as an afterthought. Garn said Owens' priorities for fish flows are too high, and his priorities for water for people are too low.

While a fair amount of the Tuesday presentation was dedicated to Owens-bashing, the disagreement among the delegation isn't polarized along party lines alone.

Owens and Garn agree the irrigation and drainage parts of the project will not survive if project sponsors expect Congress to finance them. An alternative plan to have the conservancy district bond for irrigation features, then repay construction costs with public power revenues have been written into the Owens bill.

Nielson said he believes people who have been promised irrigation water in the Uintah Basin and in central Utah shouldn't have to see their projects left outside traditional federal financing mechanisms. He has drafted a bill that calls for traditional financing for irrigation features with a non-federal financing option, but said he wants to work out financing differences with the Owens bill rather than introduce his own bill.

Garn said the votes just aren't there for the traditional financing in Nielson's bill, but said the Nielson bill serves as a good reminder to others in Congress of the commitments that have been made to Utah irrigators more than 20 years ago.

The conflict over whose legislation should be enacted also includes powerful congressmen outside the Utah delegation.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power, said in a July 14 letter to Owens that he finds Nielson's bill, calling for traditional financing for irrigation features "fundamentally flawed" making the bill "impossible to enact."

Rep. Morris Udall, chairman of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, wrote to Owens, saying he would consider Owens' bill in the full interior committee "when agreements are in hand to provide non-traditional private financing of irrigation and drainage facilities and to provide the financing of fish and wildlife enhancement measures."

Those positions have been countered by Wayne Marchant, Interior Department deputy assistant secretary, who said his department and the Office of Management and Budget agree the private financing plan is not in accord with Reagan administration plans.

The debate and lack of unity among the delegation members is causing some of the members of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District Board to lose patience while they watch their portions of the project being volleyed back and forth among the delegation members.

Several board members alluded to the existence of factions among board members and made reference to their concerns.

Tension among the board members and talk that some would call for General Manager Don Christiansen's resignation cooled after Garn and Nielson's remarks, and after Christiansen outlined the district staff's work and posture while working on the legislation with the delegation. The board also passed a resolution reaffirming their position to see all portions of the project on a speedy, simultaneous schedule - irrigation as well as municipal water development.

Garn said he has bills ready to introduce in January to address the Indian and non-Indian needs in the Uintah Basin separate from the current issue of increasing the CUP's spending ceiling.

Nielson said commitments in the Uintah Basin need to be detailed now, not next year, and said legislation he has prepared includes money for those parts of the project.

Garn said he is committed to seeing the project completed by the 1995 target date, but the notion of finishing the irrigation portion by then has already been abandoned by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is building the CUP. BOR Regional Director Clifford I. Barrett informed Christiansen monetary constraints placed on the BOR "definitely precludes completion by the bureau of the I&D (irrigation) system by 1995."