Supporters of a dam project on the East Fork of the Virgin River just outside Zion National Park received understanding but no commitment of support Wednesday from Gov. Norm Bangerter.

Washington County Water Conservancy District officials and Sen. Fred Finlinson, R-Salt Lake, met with the governor to ask for help preventing the site from being designated a wilderness area."We don't want to see an area we think is critical to the community locked away in wilderness," Ron Thompson, manager of the water district, told the governor.

While the governor agreed that the stage has been set for a battle between environmentalists and communities needing water in order to grow, he made no promises about whose side he would be on.

The water district, which sells water to communities throughout the county, has decided a dam needs to be built on the East Fork canyon to create a reservoir to hold about 50,000 acre-feet of water.

It would bolster the water supplies held in the Quail Creek and Kolob reservoirs as well as a 5,000-acre-foot reservoir planned for the North Creek near the town of Virgin.

Thompson said the sandstone canyon is the most practical site for the reservoir. Part of the reason is that the site sits above the communities it would serve, making it easier to get the water to users.

Diverting river water to another location for storage would boost the cost from an estimated low of $5 million to as much as $60 million or more, Thompson said.

Many environmentalists believe the dam site should be part of the national park, said Thompson. It is being studied for wilderness designation by the federal government.

But unless the site is excluded from the protection against development afforded by wilderness status so work on the dam can start by 1998, St. George and surrounding communities may outgrow available water supplies, he said.

"We can't do anything until this wilderness issues gets resolved," Thompson said. "The fear I have is that everybody isn't educated to the trade-offs."

Mike Christensen, deputy director of the state Office of Planning and Budget, said the proposed dam site is one of the most controversial of the 82 sites in Utah designated as wilderness study areas.

Finlinson agreed. "I don't know that you could go anywhere and find a more classic confrontation," he said. "You have legitimate environmental values . . . ."

"And legitimate development values," Bangerter said. "I agree with your assessment that this is a classic confrontation," the governor finished.