Utah's congressional delegation calls it a much-deserved "fix." Others may call it another government bail-out - sticking taxpayers nationally with water bills that Uintah Basin residents are now unable to pay.

The delegation is asking Congress to forgive much of the local debt for the Jensen Unit of the Central Utah Project, allowing the Uintah Water Conservancy District to save about $43 million in repayments.And Utah's members are doing it quietly - attaching the fix-bailout to a complicated, lengthy bill needed to complete the Bonneville Unit of the CUP, which brings water from eastern Utah to the thirsty Wasatch Front.

The Jensen Unit - whose main feature is the Red Fleet Dam and Reservoir near Vernal - was built when Uintah Basin oil shale and tar sands development was expected to boom in the late 1970s, which would supposedly make the population and water demand there explode.

But the energy boom went bust. And the Jensen Unit proved to be no "Field of Dreams" because they built it, but the people never came.

That left a project that could provide 18,000 acre-feet of municipal and industrial water - enough for the annual need of 90,000 residents. But the water district figures it now needs only 2,000 of that 18,000 acre-feet.

David Rasmussen, general manager of the conservancy district, recently told Deseret News correspondent Gordon Eliot White that his district is unsure it can use even that little amount.

The district has already negotiated transferring 16,000 acre-feet back to the federal government, which could market it if it could find a buyer. The water district retains first right of refusal for purchase of that water.

The water district's resulting payments would decrease from $1.09 million a year to $226,585. That still needs ratification by Congress, which the delegation is seeking.

Rasmussen said the district has already made three of the lower payments in 1989, 1990 and 1991. "If we were to have to go back and make the million-dollar payments," Rasmussen said, "we'd have to tell the federal government to come get its reservoir."

The delegation argues that the bailout-fix is justified because the federal government was the main force behind the once-expected development of oil shale and tar sands, and the project was built to meet demands the federal government projected.

But Utah members have spoken little about the fix and sought no publicity for it. That comes in contrast to the long list of press releases and statements they normally issue seeking recognition for their work on other topics.

That may not be bad strategy, given the current controversy over the savings-and-loan bailout. Public outrage at forcing taxpayers to cover bad loans that failing S&Ls made could spill over at having taxpayers also cover loans for an unneeded water project.

The delegation had introduced a separate bill two years ago seeking the same Jensen Unit fix-bailout. It didn't do well. It never proceeded to the point of even obtaining a hearing, let alone a vote in any subcommittee.

Attaching the fix-bailout to the CUP completion bill, however, likely guarantees its passage.

It weaves it into a complicated net of compromises worked out by a wide range of groups affected by the bill.

Among them are Wasatch Front water users, who want the CUP finished; environmental groups who want more CUP environmental restoration work; Indian tribes who want payment for water rights; hydroelectric power users who do not want to pay too much for CUP completion; and those who want to use the bill as a vehicle to reform the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Their combined efforts on a bill carefully crafted to win all their support should push the bill through Congress - and take the fix-bailout with it.