A regional task force voted yesterday to recommend a new set of ground rules for how Washington area water utilities and local governments deal with drought conditions, in hopes of avoiding future confusion over when to call for water restrictions.

The proposal grew out of bickering between Maryland and Virginia officials over how much action to take during last summer's drought, which both sides agreed sent an inconsistent message to the public. But even as they voted to approve the idea of ground rules, task force members left some controversial details to be resolved later.

The new rules would include an escalating set of triggers that would require local governments to inform the public of a drought situation, ask for voluntary conservation, impose limited water-use restrictions and, in the worst case, impose broad restrictions. The triggers have yet to be established, but they would be based on criteria such as the level of the Potomac River.

"It's going to bring us together, as opposed to pointing fingers," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "When they started this, people said you'll never get Virginia and Maryland to agree."

The task force was formed by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to look at existing water supplies, future needs and the regional agreements in place for dealing with drought. The council's board is to vote on the recommendations next month, and local governments also would have to adopt them. Many of the changes would be incorporated into regional water supply agreements.

The task force recommendations represent an attempt by local governments to take a stronger role in water supply issues, rather than leave decisions to local water utilities. Some officials say they felt left out of water-use decisions last summer.

The region's year-long dry spell was one of the worst this century, and it forced utilities to release water from Potomac River reservoirs for the first time since they were built in the 1980s. Maryland imposed mandatory water restrictions for a month, but officials in Virginia and the District did not because they believed the water supply to be adequate.

For that reason, task force members said they hope that the governors of Maryland and Virginia, and the District's mayor, agree to sign the revised regional water supply agreements that will include the new guidelines. Such an agreement would make it more difficult for any political leader to impose restrictions unilaterally, they said.

"You establish a different political dynamic that would make it more difficult for that decision to be made," said John J. Bosley, the lawyer for the Council of Governments.

A proposed set of guidelines was offered by two men on opposite sides of this summer's drought-severity debate--Fairfax County Supervisor Robert B. Dix Jr. (R-Hunter Mill) and Montgomery County's director of environmental protection, James A. Caldwell.

Dix compared the guidelines to regional rules on snow emergencies and Code Red smog days, but the details did not go down smoothly. One of their guidelines would require local governments to send a conserve-water message to residents when water is released from reservoirs, in hopes that conservation would help forestall the need for more releases. But Falls Church City Council member Merni Fitzgerald called that "scare-mongering," and others said it would send a wrong message that reservoirs are not meant to be used. The task force has yet to resolve the matter.

The task force recommended that local jurisdictions update outdated drought ordinances, and try to get better data on how the drought affected fish and other aquatic life in the Potomac River as well as ground water. Task force members agreed to recommend that Maryland update the assumptions that are the basis for setting minimum flow levels in the river. Those flow levels are used to determined whether water restrictions are needed or water should be released from upstream reservoirs. If the minimum flow levels are raised, that would mean conservation measures would become more common in times of drought.

Task force members agreed to ask that their group be kept in place to supervise revision of water supply plans, to promote better communications among local governments, and to help involve the public more in future water supply planning.