The Northeast, a region more noted for its floods than its droughts, may be headed for a self-inflicted water shortage, according to a study released yesterday.

The area still has a more than adequate quantity of water, the study found, but pollution and deteriorating delivery systems may one day make it impossible to move enough clean water where it is needed.

While the problem is a long term one, and by no means the most serious facing the region, "it is a problem worth doing something about," said David A. Grossman of the Nova Institute, the New York-based research organization that conducted the study.

Nova was hired by a coalition of seven Northeast organizations to examine the region's water problems so that local political leaders and Congress can begin to decide how best to deal with them. In addition, the study looked at the economic impact of water projects, particularly the extent to which they create jobs.

The report covered a wide range of water-related topics -- from port facilities to hydroelectric projects -- but the most serious findings, Grossman said, were the aging urban distribution systems and the rapidly emerging problem of the disposal of hazardous wastes.

Speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference on the report, Grossman said Northeastern cities "are living off past capital." During the years around the turn of the century, they spent large sums on physical plant, including water and sewer pipes. But in the intervening years, other needs have arisen to consume the available resources, and across the region he sees "a pattern of declining investment in capital projects."

Thus, while the expected lifespan of a water pipe is about 75 years and of a sewer pipe about 100-125 years, maintenance in some areas has fallen to the point where these pipes will be replaced only every 300 to 500 years.

"The cities are not falling down around our ears," he said, but they are crumbling."

The report noted that there are "virtually no federal funds... now available" to assist cities with this problem, though there are several bills pending that would provide grants and/or loans.

The report also noted that the 11 states it covered -- from Maine to Maryland -- "will generate an estimated 28 percent of all hazardous wastes in the nation by 1980." It pointed to the Love Canal disaster near Buffalo, and to other problem areas, but noted that while "federal funds are available for planning" there are none "for the far more costly requirements for safe disposal of hazardous wastes."

Looking over all the area's problems, Grossman placed a rough price tag of $25 billion on dealing with all its problems. However, he noted that very little information is available about the extent of the urban distribution problem which makes him think that figure "might be low."