Utah congressmen are only facing reality in sponsoring legislation to let the Uintah Water Conservancy District out of its federal contract to buy 18,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Jensen Unit of the Central Utah Project and to cut its payments by 75 percent.

At present, Uintah Basin residents are obligated to pay $1 million a year for the next 50 years for the Red Fleet Dam, a key part of the Jensen Unit. It stores 22,000 acre-feet of water on Brush Creek, about 10 miles north of Vernal.While it is painful to see the deficit-ridden federal government swallow most of that debt, there appears to be little choice. A deal worked out with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would relieve the district of eight-ninths of its water purchase and cut the $1 million payments to about $225,000 a year.

Bills introduced by Sen. Jake Garn and Rep. Howard Nielson are asking Congress to endorse this agreed-upon arrangement.

Failure to pass the legislation would not solve anything. The dam is built, the water is there, but the money isn't. At least under this arrangement, the federal government would get part of its investment back.

The Jensen Unit originally was approved in the midst of the OPEC oil crisis, when oil exploration blossomed in the Uintah Basin and projects to wring oil out of oil shale - using lots of water - were on the drawing board. But all those plans collapsed and people left the area in droves. In addition, safety considerations more than doubled the cost of the Red Fleet Dam after bids had been submitted.

The Jensen Unit water is not needed in the area and now runs to California. But under the proposed new plan, the Uintah Water Conservancy District would have first option to buy more of the water later if the energy crisis returns - as it could easily do some day.

The Jensen Unit's problems should not be allowed to cast a shadow on the rest of the CUP, which is seeking further funding from Congress. The Bonneville Unit is badly needed to provide water to the heavily-populated Wasatch Front - another set of circumstances entirely.