Abandoning a five-county irrigation feature of the Central Utah Project is not a new concept, but its recurrence at a time when a funding source for the $300 million-plus system may be at hand continues to surprise some officials.

Utah County Commission Chairman Brent Morris told a large gathering of state and federal officials Monday that a plan should be considered to eliminate the irrigation feature that would take water as far south as the Sevier River basin in Millard County.Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, has been given credit for considering such a plan, and it doesn't sound all bad to the Millard County Commission, which decided in January to withhold more than $1 million in 1988 CUP taxes until it gets a better idea what it could expect for its 20-year investment in the project.

In November, Owens asked for an audit of the CUP and its adequacy in meeting the needs of the residents of the 12 participating counties. The Bureau of Reclamation's recent response was cursory and inadequate, an aide said, and Owens may press the bureau further about water supplies and water needs.

Instead of irrigation water, Morris suggested, the 116,000 acre-feet of water that has been developed by the CUP for farmers should be turned northward to Salt Lake County to meet municipal needs.

Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, told those who browbeat the CUP during the Monday meeting that lopping off the irrigation feature isn't practical because the $130 million or so already spent, on project features and planning that would facilitate the irrigation component, would have to be paid by residential water users in Salt Lake County _ along with millions of dollars in additional development costs.

Water rates in Salt Lake County would likely double if the CUP's irrigation water was converted for culinary use there, he said.

As it is, the federal money already spent on irrigation does not have to be reimbursed locally, although construction costs for the irrigation system would be financed through a rate increase on public power supplies under an agreement now being negotiated between water officials and public power officials in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

That financing plan would affect all Utahns who pay their electric bills to a utility that buys federal power.

There are various reasons why some people want to scrap the CUP irrigation feature. At the federal level, eliminating the irrigation would do away with the need to do battle in Congress for funds. Meanwhile, Millard County officials and water users there are losing faith that their portion of the project will ever be developed.

And in Utah County, dumping the irrigation portion would keep controversial Provo River and Utah Lake water supplies unencumbered and out of the CUP's overall development picture. Water in the Provo River is already over-allocated, Morris said.

Gov. Norm Bangerter said some of the criticism is valid, but he stressed there are larger questions concerning fairness to all parties.