ON ONE side of Western Avenue NW the early-morning sprinklers spurt at full tilt, soaking the well-tended, surprisingly lush lawns. Across the street, the lawns are browner and the neighbors hotter under their collars; for they are forbidden by edicts from opening spigots to rescue gasping flowers and shrubs. What's a good citizen to believe, never mind understand, in a drought?

At best, the messages going out to residents of the District and its neighboring cities, counties and states are confusing -- even if the conditions and sources of water do vary from one neighborhood to another. These differences -- and the existence of some well-established interjurisdictional water authorities with good backup water-supply plans and facilities -- argue against forming any new superbureaucracy. But a unified information and guidance system ought to be established that could make certain decisions and issue uniform warnings and recommendations on public water use. Step A, for example, might call for certain voluntary actions, Step B for odd-and-even day voluntary restraints with warnings for noncompliance and so on.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has done a good job with its alert system for air pollution, telling people how bad conditions are each day and what steps to take to improve them. The council is the logical body to come up with a similar plan for water-supply reports and recommendations.

Water policy is more complex, and conservation measures do not depend on making one regional reading of the area, as the council can do when gauging air quality. Some parts of the region get their water from the Potomac and Occoquan. But in Loudoun County, for example, differing water services and supply levels can require different rules. Still, the Council of Governments could, as Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan has proposed, set benchmarks for when certain general water-conservation steps ought to be recommended, announced and, if local governments consider them necessary, ordered.

Information is the key to any public sense of fairness. The reason that water agencies drawing on the Potomac River are not experiencing any emergency, for example, is that in 1982 they signed binding agreements to make sure the Potomac never fell to dangerous levels. Those agreements are bolstered by a low-flow allocation agreement requiring the participating agencies to recommend restrictions if the Potomac does fall below certain levels. That condition has not been reached so far this summer.

As with any regional plans for emergencies -- air, snow, electric power or water shortages -- the thinking and the decisions come most readily when the experiences are still fresh in everyone's mind. The Council of Governments should seize the dry moment.