An underground water pipe in Diamond Fork Canyon big enough to drive a VW Beatle through will remain dry for years while officials try to keep from drowning in a controversial section of the massive Central Utah Project.

"Big water projects always move slow," said Sheldon Talbot, project engineer with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, the quasi-government agency that oversees the CUP.The only thing constant about the proposed Spanish Fork-Nephi Irrigation System is change. The $312 million project would carry water from Strawberry Reservoir in Summit County to southern Utah and eastern Juab counties through some 40 miles of pipeline.

Representatives from various agencies such as Division of Wildlife Resources, Natural Resources and the U.S. Forest service who comprise the Coordinating Resource Management Program toured the increasingly popular canyon Tuesday. The agencies are trying to balance the area's often competing water, agricultural and recreational interests. Waiting on the CUP makes that challenging.

There's currently a gap between the Syar Tunnel and Sixth Water aqueduct out of Strawberry and the Diamond Fork Pipeline, which was finished last year.

The water conservancy district intended to close that gap by damming Diamond Fork Creek at Monks Hollow, a picturesque red-rock gorge just east of U.S. 6 in Spanish Fork Canyon. But pressure from environmental groups forced the district to scrap the $45 million project.

The water district now wants to build a series of tunnels and pipelines to complete the system in Diamond Fork. The new plan would cost an estimated $10 million to $15 million more than the previous one.

"Somebody has to put up that cost. Somebody has to write out a check for that," Talbot said.

So far, no one has stepped up.

Money, however, is only one of several obstacles holding up the project.

Talbot and Lee Swenson, environmental compliance specialist, will join a water district contingent in Washington, D.C., next week that hopes to persuade federal officials to separate the Diamond Fork tunnel plan from the rest of the project. That would require yet another supplement to the Spanish Fork-Nephi system environmental impact statement, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency apparently isn't hip on the idea.

Studying the proposal would take at least 21/2 years, Swenson said. Construction of the tunnels and pipeline, much of it through solid rock, would take another four years.

Swenson said there's also the possibility that officials will want to rethink the Spanish Fork-Nephi project all together.

Further complicating the situation is a water rights dispute between the Strawberry Water Users Association and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Talbot said the water district isn't directly involved in the battle and is content to watch the two agencies duke it out. The district does, however, have to figure out how to convey Strawberry some water to which it is entitled. The Monks Hollow dam would have made delivery easy; the Diamond Fork tunnel alternative makes it difficult if not impossible.

Then there's the question of where the water goes if the system is built. Utah and Juab county farmers are currently in line to receive 73,000 acre-feet annually. A family of four uses about an acre-foot per year. A farmer uses roughly 31/2 acre-feet to grow a season's worth of hay.

Some environmental groups argue that the water should be sent to Salt Lake County because residents there are paying for a greater share of it.