For the first time in three years, the D.C. government has cut off water service to customers who have not paid their water bills, officials said yesterday.

"This is fair and equitable to all the citizens in this town," said William F. Johnson, acting director of the city's Department of Environmental Services. "We're trying to do this in a very prudent and sensitive manner. We're going to keep it up until we get all the delinquent revenues possible."

Water service to five Washington residences was turned off Tuesday, according to Edward M. Scott, chief of the department's revenue collection division. Service was quickly restored to three of the homes after the occupants agreed to pay the bills. But two residences remained without service late yesterday, Scott said.

He said the department planned to cut off service to some 40 other accounts yesterday. Service was cut off at two 24-unit apartment buildings in Anacostia yesterday morning, but it was restored after community workers agreed to try to help residents find a way to pay the bills.

Before 1977, the city had a policy of shutting off water service to delinquent customers. But in September of that year, community protests over mistakes and confusion in the city's billing system led the city to abandon that policy.

Scott said the policy is being enforced again to try to collect an estimated $15 million in delinquent payments. Around $700,000 has been collected since the city stepped up its collection efforts last month, Scott said.

But some of the delinquencies have been blamed on the District government itself for sending out inaccurate bills or for not sending out bills at all. In 1977, for example, one couple complained of receiving a water bill for more than $2,400 when their previous bill had been $53.

"The bills are going out, and they're accurate," Scott said. "We should be totally on schedule by September." He admitted, however, that for some persons who have not received water bills in some time, the next ones will be sizable.

For most residents, water bills received during the next few months will be for periods of up to 11 months, Johnson said. Normally, water bills are sent out twice a year, but the current ones have been delayed while city officials struggled with the billing procedure.

Scott said water service to two apartment complexes at 204 and 216 Wayne Place, near South Capitol Street and Martin Luther King Avenue in Anacostia, was turned off yesterday morning, but restored after about an hour.

He said representatives of the United Planning Organization, a federally funded group that provides services for low-income people, agreed to survey the apartment residents to determine which of them qualified for a program that subsidizes utility bills.

Scott said the apartment buildings were managed by H&M Enterprises, a Bethesda firm that owed a total of more than $60,000 in water bills for several apartment complexes around the city. Officials of the firm could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Water department officials said they do not care whether the landlord or the tenants pay the water bill as long as it gets paid. According to a UPO staff member, water costs are often passed along to tenants if, for some reason, the landlord cannot pay.

"For a long time, people didn't get bills, and now they're getting big ones," said Theresa Jones, director of UPO's utility bill subsidy program. o"Folks just don't have the money."

Scott said the delinquent customers whose service was just cut off were selected at random earlier this year as officials geared up for the new collection effort. Of the five residences cut off Tuesday, four were in Northeast Washington and one on Ontario Road in Northwest Washington.

Under the new procedure, customers receive a letter if they have not paid their bills within 30 days.

Johnson said if there is still no action "within a reasonable time," a cutoff notice is sent. Seven days later, service is suspended.

Johnson said actual cutoff is reserved primarily for water users who refuse even to call the city and arrange a payment plan. "These parties refuse to talk to us, and we intend to turn their water off," he said.

Scott said service at two Northeast Washington Residences -- 1222 Duncan Pl. and 1359 Florida Ave. -- was turned off Tuesday and remained off yesterday. residents at these addresses could not be reached for comment. Scott said the overdue bills for service cut Tuesday and yesterday ranged up to $300.

Service to the three other residences was restored. "We don't want to unduly deprive citizens of service," Scott said. "If we determine that somebody is coming forth in the near future, we'll back off."