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In agreeing to a withdrawal of Millard County - and probably Sevier County as well - from the Central Utah Project at minimal cost, all parties involved made a wise choice. The alternative would have been an expensive legal fight with taxpayers the biggest losers.

Under the deal approved this week by the CUP, Millard County will be able to drop out of the 12-county consortium and receive a refund of $1.2 million in property taxes paid to the CUP for 1994.Sevier County is still negotiating for withdrawal from the CUP. But with the departure of Millard County, it's hard to see how the CUP could deny the same opportunity to Sevier. The chief questions are how much it will cost and who will pay.

It is unfortunate that the counties feel the need to withdraw. Their absence jeopardizes the development of water resources in the Sevier River Basin and will have at least some negative impact on the CUP.

Residents in both counties voted overwhelmingly last year to drop out of the massive water project and give up their share of the proposed 35,000 acre feet of water earmarked for the five Sevier Basin counties.

Congress recently made changes in the CUP contract that forced expensive environmental outlays and raised the local share of water costs to 35 percent. Voters in the two counties clearly felt that the cost was getting too high for what they would receive in return.

Congress put a provision in the 1992 legislation on the CUP that allowed counties to withdraw from the project and get a refund for taxes paid, minus any benefits and costs incurred. For months, the CUP and the county had been arguing over the costs, each claiming the other had to pay millions of dollars.

Aside from the finances, just how Millard's withdrawal will affect delivery of CUP water to the other three counties in the Sevier River Basin - Sanpete, Garfield and Piute - is still unclear. Some argue that the water rights system on the river might prevent CUP water from being added to the river without the participation of Millard County. That issue will have to be worked out in the future.

The most troubling aspect of the whole CUP story is the unnecessary expense. The project is many years behind its completion date because Congress kept stringing out the funding at levels far lower than originally planned.

In the meantime, construction costs soared. The delays grew so lengthy that some segments of the project withered and died and the CUP twice had to be entirely reauthorized. The project, once pegged at $400 million, became a $2 billion undertaking.

Nothing can be done about that at this point. The critical fact is that Utah needs the CUP water for economic survival. At least Congress is fully committed to funding the rest of the project.

Utahns need to buckle down and work out ways to pay for the state's share of the CUP instead of trying to abandon ship.