The Garrison Diversion water project, one of the largest federal irrigation ventures, has been recommended for a dramatic cutback to limit environmental damage and to address serious drinking water problems in North Dakota, federal officials and members of a congressionally authorized commission said yesterday.

The decision marks the end of an era that began in the 1940s, when Congress authorized the project to irrigate arid North Dakota farm land with water from the Missouri River.

Delayed for decades, Garrison became controversial as officials discovered that it would damage thousands of acres of wetlands, pollute Canadian rivers and cost more than $3,800 per acre.

Congress earlier this year placed a moratorium on further construction of Garrision, still only 15 percent complete, until a 12-member commission appointed by Interior Secretary William P. Clark could review the project and propose a less damaging solution to North Dakota water needs of the future.

The commission proposal, presented yesterday to Clark, would redirect much of the irrigation project into 130 municipal drinking water systems.

The original plan would have reached only 14 such systems, although three-fourths of North Dakota communities depend on well water contaminated beyond state health standards, North Dakota officials said.

The new proposal would irrigate 130,940 acres of farm land, rather than 250,000, as in the existing design. This, in turn, would require fewer miles of canals and reservoirs, limiting damage to wetlands and Canadian waters.

It also calls for the protection of Kraft Slough and the Sheyenne Lake National Wildlife Refuge, rich waterfowl habitats that would have been flooded under the existing design.

The old design called for thousands of miles of reservoirs and canals, which would flood one national wildlife refuge, damage 11 others and transport Missouri River fish into the Hudson River basin and into Canada, possibly in violation of an international water treaty.

The project also came under fire for its cost -- about $1 million per farm to be irrigated.

Many farmers acknowledged that they planned to use the irrigation to increase yields of wheat and corn, which already are in surplus.

Clark said upon receiving the report yesterday that he will move quickly to make recommendations to Congress on how to revise the project.

The commission called on Clark and Congress to lift the moratorium on monies for those parts of the project that it approved so that it could progress.

The commission, chaired by former Louisiana governor David C. Treen, voted 11 to 1 for the proposal, with the dissent coming from John Paulson, retired editor of The Forum, the daily newspaper of Fargo, N.D., and one of the most fervent editorial supporters of Garrison.

He said the proposal by the panel "gutted" Garrison.

Paulson and many other North Dakotans considered Garrison their birthright, a debt to the state for 500,000 acres of prime farm land flooded in the 1940s for a network of dams that stopped flooding in the Missouri Valley.

A coalition of conservation groups cheered the commission report as a deathblow for costly, environmentally damaging water projects, although they said that the revised plan remains more costly, financially and environmentally, than they would like.

"Is this proposal the project we dreamed of? No," said Ed Osann, director of water resources for the National Wildlife Federation. "Will it bring in a new era of water resource management? No. But it is a great improvement, and we will work in that context to support it and improve it."