Over the years, Southeast residents Irene Claggett and Jewell Johnson had never worried much about their water bills. The bill had never totaled more than $150 a year for their row house at 824 D Street SE.

Last year that changed. The elderly sisters received a bill for $2,099.69 for water and sewer services from Jan. 29, 1976 to July 24, 1976. A bill for $3,489.26 followed a year later. A 10 per cent late payment fee increased the total charges to $6,147.84.

The Water Operation Division informed the women that no leaks had been found, and the bill had been verified. Payments, they said, was expected within 10 days.

The sisters responded by retaining District lawyer William A. Burleson to look into the matter. Burleson contacted Mayor Washington's office, charging that perhaps Metro or one of its contractors had tapped his clients' water lines. The lawyer asked that the city trace the lines to see if they had been tampered with.

Mayor Washington responded by asking Herbert Tucker, director of the city's Environmental Services Department to investigate the bill.

"At the very beginning I had some trouble with (the idea of Metro tapping into their line," said Tucker. "We pulled the meter to determine whether or not it was malfunctioning."

Tucker said the meter was the culprit.

"A spindle that controls all the dials you would read had worn down and was not functioning properly." I turned continuously, he said

The first water bill should have been $73, he said. And the second bill, for services from July 24, 1976 to June 10, 1977 should have been $185. Total cost $258. Both bills have since been adjusted.

But the water spindle is still tripping dizzily for thousands of other District residents.

Of approximately 113,000 bills sent out wiithin the past 90 days, Tucker said 5,500 of them have resulted in complaints. The figure, he said, represents a five per cent error range which, by his own standards he said, is 3 to 4 per cent too high. The director said he did not know which percentage of those 5,500 bills were legitimate error.

However, he admitted that bills as obvious as the one for 824 D Street should have been detected.

"On Sept. 1, my people went in and found no leaks on the service and verified the reading. When this was called to my attention my reaction was that it was fantastic! That's when I directed that the meter be pulled and checked out." The problem, said Tucker, should have never reached his office or the mayor's.

His investigation also showed that a computer fail-safe mechanism which questioned huge bills had been removed from the system.

"I found out they had taken off that thing that says this bill is wrong! That was not in effect," he said.

"Why it was not in the system I'm not going to answer . . . because I was not the director at that times."

Edward Scott, director of the water and sewer division, has since been instructed to reinstate that fail-safe program. Now all bills that are 80 per cent higher than those previously sent out will be tossed out by the computer and reviewed, said Tucker.

For the past few years, the water department has been successfully playing catch-up in its billing system. Projected revenue for fiscal year '77 was $39,500.000. Tucker said they will receive about $36,600,000 of that money this year. The rest will spill over into fiscal year '78 which began Oct.1.

D.C.'s water problems may have even gone beyond whatever stabilizing effects automation could render.

"Any time you automate you have to get your accounts up to date so you can put in accurate information," said Tucker.

The District's water accounts have not been up to date in a long time, and Tucker suggested that matters weren't going to immediately get much better.

He said low morale stemming from pressure to update the billing system and generate more revenue had practically immobilized the people in the water revenue division by the time he took over as director last year. Employees were calling in sick, attendance was poor, and the staff was reluctant to make even trivial decisions without his approval, said Tucker.

"I'd ask, is there anything in our policy or procedure that would preclude you from making a decision? 'No sir.' Well, why did you com e to me) . . .? I wasn't sure.

"In many instances that area down there was being criticized for not generating the revenue it was supposed to." he continued. "So all of a sudden the guy (the inspectors) found himself saying the meter reading is right. He didn't even feel there was a flagrant meter reading. All he saw was that the numbers on the meter now agreed with the meter book."

Inspectors checking bills contested by the consumer compare the original meter readings in the meter books with current readings. If they are comparable, explained Tucker, then they are assumed to be correct.

But not all local residents approve of the water inspectors assumptions that their meters are working properly and their bills are correct.

Marie Jordan, a widow with two teenage children , has lived in her two-story, semi-detached home at 12th and owen Place NE for 16 years. Water bills, she said, had never been over $120 a year.This year she received water bills totaling $1,897.23.

Louise Rucker, a resident at 13th and Madison Streets NW has lived in her home for four years. Her water bill averaged $300 a year until this year. This year Rucker received a $900 water bill for seven months' service.

And Charles Gooden, owner of Kane's Tavern at 5422 Georgia Ave. NW said he is still fighting to maintain his business! The water department maintains that Gooden owes them over $4,000 in water bills.

Tucker said a team of department people headed by a GS-12 official surveyed the premises on Sept. 14 and found numerous leaks. Gooden said a private plumbing firm insists there aren't any.