An idea by Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, about how to allow the Central Utah Project to divert water headed for southern Utah to Salt Lake and Utah counties might just hold water, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation says.

Owens recently asked the bureau to investigate the possibility of building an aqueduct to allow northward diversion of the Strawberry Reservoir's CUP water, which is designed to flow to southern Utah irrigators.Bureau Acting Regional Director W.J. Hirschi wrote Owens that such an aqueduct is possible, but would require adjustments in water rights, more detailed investigation and reductions of water deliveries to irrigators.

Information that Owens requested that was not provided included the cost of such an aqueduct and whether it would be environmentally sound.

Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, said Monday he could go along with a plan to convert CUP irrigation water to culinary water for Salt Lake County with the agreement of all other players, namely the central Utah irrigators who are supposed to get CUP irrigation water, and culinary water users in Salt Lake County.

But Nielson was skeptical about the plan because the development costs for the irrigation system, paid by the federal government, would have to be reimbursed locally if the water was put to uses other than irrigation. Water rates in Salt Lake County would likely double if the CUP's irrigation water was rerouted north to Salt Lake County for culinary uses.

Hirschi wrote that possibilities for such an aqueduct include constructing an aqueduct "or some other conveyance works" from the Spanish Fork River to the Provo River, then to the Salt Lake Valley; or construct facilities to bring water from the Spanish Fork River to the head of the canals near the mouth of the Provo Canyon "to facilitate exchanges of irrigation water in Utah Valley."

While such an aqueduct could provide more water for Salt Lake County, Hirschi said that would "require a significant reduction in deliveries to potential irrigation users . . . (and) adjustments in existing water rights and uses and significant investigations."

Hirschi said when the CUP was designed, officials considered a similar aqueduct to deliver water to the Provo area. But Provo said it had sufficient water supplies and therefore had no interest in any more from the aqueduct.

Owens wrote said in his original request that Salt Lake County faces serious water supply problems, and therefore he is encouraging creative solutions.

He wrote, "According to the county (water) conservancy district's forecast, its water needs will exceed the supply to be made available by the CUP in 1998, only two years after the project will have been completed."

He worries even more because pending litigation by Utah County - which claims the CUP has led to over-appropriation of Provo River water - might delay CUP completion and bring Salt Lake County water shortages even sooner.

Owens said his envisioned aqueduct may help solve Utah County's objections by providing extra water to ensure all water rights are met.

Another problem with the Salt Lake County water supply, Owens said, is that the county is at the point now that it is using groundwater faster than nature can replenish it, "which is particularly alarming inasmuch as the replacement seepage could end up coming from the Great Salt lake - which would seriously and perhaps permanently compromise the county's aquifer."

Kenley Brunsdale, administrative assistant to Owens, said Owens plans more follow-up with the bureau especially because its letter gave "only general answers to specific questions."

Proceeding with the aqueduct could be controversial. Southern Utah officials have worried for years that their long-promised water may be diverted away.