In 1999, when severe drought struck central Kentucky, localities realized they needed a way to move available water resources across and around a six-county region.

Now they are inching one step closer to that goal. With the aid of the federal government, officials are about to study engineering plans to connect water utilities and cooperate across various counties and utilities.

Currently, utilities operate individually, without pipelines to surrounding districts. The study will examine the possibility of "wheeling" water, so named because pipelines can be laid out to connect different utilities like the spokes of a wheel. The idea has been likened to the grids joining electric companies.

The study will also investigate intra-regional sharing of water- treatment plants and water supplies. "This way, everybody doesn't have to do everything on their own," says Don Hassall, assistant executive director of the Bluegrass Area Development District, a partnership between local governments. "Perhaps working together we can do things more efficiently."

The first step in the process has been persuading the utility companies, which traditionally operate somewhat competitively, to sit down at the table together for preliminary talks. The situation is further complicated because some of the utilities are publicly owned and some are private. Among issues for the study to resolve are which areas should be connected and who should build joint plants or store surplus water.

The federal government has allotted up to $300,000 in matching funds to finance the study, if the development district comes up with $245,000. The study, which involves cities such as Lexington, Frankfort, Georgetown and Nicholasville, could begin in late 2001 or early 2002.