EVEN UNDER NORMAL conditions, the waste of water by two of the region's largest utilities would be disturbing. But, as Post writer Eric Lipton reported on Sunday, the District's water and sewer authority and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission serving Prince George's and Montgomery counties are, on average, losing track of 66 million gallons of water each day during one of the worst droughts of this century. District and suburban Maryland residents and businesses have a right to be outraged. Millions of gallons of water that should be conserved or paid for are flowing down the drain.

How much? The District bills for only about 102 million of the 135 million gallons that flow through the city's water system each day. That's an "unbilled" water rate of 24 percent. The WSSC, which produces about 166 million gallons a day, is compensated for only 133 million gallons -- an unbilled water rate of 20 percent. Baltimore's unbilled water rate is 9.5 percent, Chicago's 10 percent, Fairfax County's 9.7 percent. The national average is 16 percent. If the District and the WSSC's rate matched the national average, the two jurisdictions would be taking in about $10 million a year in payments or conserving 18 million gallons of water a day.

For nearly two decades, the District neglected its system. As politicians padded the payrolls and spent millions on popular but questionable programs, the essentials of government were ignored. Broken valves and malfunctioning meters were left unrepaired. Pipes were allowed to rust. Water mains, reservoirs and storage tanks went uncleaned. Leak repair orders backlogged, and crews moved like molasses. The WSSC, preoccupied with accommodating a late '80s housing boom, was also slow to recognize the growing problem of inadequate maintenance, inaccurate meters and water loss due to thefts and leaks. Both utilities -- and their current residential and business customers -- are paying for those past failures.

The WSSC has a head start in cutting down on unbilled water. But the problem is far from being solved in Prince George's, Montgomery or the District. Nothing short of pressure -- steady and sustained -- by leaders and residents will force the two water and sewer utilities to put in place aggressive water-loss prevention programs. To do any less wastes both money and a priceless resource.