The general manager of the Central Utah Water Conservancy District joined Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, Sunday in a "non-political" press conference to defend the Central Utah Project's political coalition.

"This is not a political statement," stressed district manager Don Christiansen. "The CUP has had bipartisan support for more than 20 years. It is essential for the future of Utah. We must have this project. We must not fail."He said his appearance with Owens just two days before the election should not be construed as an endorsement of the Democratic incumbent. Utah's entire congressional delegation - four of the five are Republicans - worked diligently for passage of CUP's $700 million reauthorization bill, Christiansen said.

The bill failed in the final hours of the 101st Congress because it got caught up in a reclamation reform debate and California politics, he explained. "The CUP was not the controversial part of the bill."

Noting that Republicans, Democrats, the Uintah Ute Indian Tribe, environmentalists, agriculture, business and almost every other major interest group are backing the bill, he and Owens said the fragile coalition must be preserved if the measure is to pass next year.

Owens said he called the press conference to respond to assertions by his political rival, Genevieve Atwood, that the CUP could be built without federal help, that the environmental mitigation element of the bill could have been cut to gain support and that the defeat of the bill demonstrated Owens' ineffectiveness.

"Utah can't afford to do it alone - it's nearly three quarters of a billion dollars - and it would be unfair because all of the other water projects in the country have been federally funded," Owens said. "We're entitled to it."

And eliminating the mitigation part of the legislation would break the coalition, he added.

As for the question of his effectiveness, Owens responded that forces beyond the control of Utah's congressional delegation caused the defeat. Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, has said the same thing in a number of public forums, he said.

If the bill is kept intact, the coalition will stick together and the legislation will be reintroduced and passed next year, Owens said. "I'm absolutely confident that we can do that."

Christiansen agreed, saying, "I would hate to point to one part of the package that could be kept. I don't know what we could change and still maintain the coalition."