Two hundred and four years later, a modern-day George Washington led his freezing men across the Delaware River into New Jersey, but today they took the bridge.

When Gen. Washington did it on Christmas Day 1776, the spirit of revolution was enough to overcome the frozen Delaware and the blistering cold, and finally the Hessians in Trenton, N.J. But today the forces of nature overcame the 28th annual reenactment of Washington's trip -- the wind chill factor was 40 degrees below zero and the ice froze the boats in the river, which didn't have enough water to take the men across anyway.

So, using good old Yankee ingenuity, this modern-day George Washington -- who in real life is Philadelphia City Councilman John B. Kelly -- led his troops across the vehicle bridge that links Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

"The river's pretty low," Kelly said. "It's questionable whether we would have made it anyway."

In fact, last week's dry runs in preparation for today's reenactment were just that -- dry. Since spring the Delaware has dropped to just a film of water running over a rocky bed, the result of the first drought to hit this area in 15 years.

Today's attempt to reenact Washington 's crossing of the Delaware provided a bit of comic relief in the long, slow drama centering on the lack of water.

Since late summer, officials in New Jesey, Pennsylvania and New York have been wrestling with the drought.

Last June the surface water supplies were brim full, and officials felt confident that there was enough water to get the area through the hot, dry summer months, after which fall showers were expected to replenish the reservoirs.

Nothing went as planned. The summer was longer and drier than predicted, and the cool, wet relief that September and October were supposed to provide never materialized.

By the end of September, precipitation in the three-state area -- which usually hovers around 45 inches a year -- was 10 inches below average. Officials placed their hopes on October, but it was as dry as a bone. And November's brief, sporadic showers were of no help because by then only flood-level rains could have filled the reservoirs.

Now, says New Jersey's water czar, Arnold Schiffman, the area needs 50 percent more precipitation than its average for the first six months of the year in order to fill the reservoirs by next summer. Schiffman says the chance of that much rain, even in a year of above-average rainfall, is remote.

And there's another twist.

"At this point," Schiffman said, "we need such an amount of water to fill the reservoirs that if we get it, we'll have severe local flooding problems."

It is these kinds of paradoxes that lead water experts to call the drought bizarre and that make it even tougher for them to convince the public that the shortage poses a real threat to their health and welfare.

In most years, if there is any water problem in this area, it is an over-abundance. But since September, officials in the three states have had to tell those residents who often contend with flooded cellars to conserve water.

For the first time, water rationing has been made mandatory for 3 million residents in six northern New Jersey counties. The goal announced on Sept. 27 by Gov. Brendan T. Byrne was to cut water use by 25 percent. To date, water consumption has dropped by 10 percent.

A stricter water-rationing program in eastern Pennsylvania has had similar results. And in New York City, which gets half of its 1.5 billion-gallons-a-day water supply from the Delaware River, Mayor Edward I. Koch has asked residents and businesses to comply with a voluntary conservation effort. Towns in southeastern New York are undertaking similar conservation efforts.

The death of autumn rainfall has caused other spots of drought along the Eastern Seaboard, particularly in Norfolk, Va., where rationing went into effect earlier this fall, and in parts of Massachusetts.

But the officials of the states that bank on the Delaware for water have a particular worry because that river serves approximately 22 million people.

Thanks to releases of water into the Delaware River from three New York City-owned reservoirs in the southeastern sector of the state, an adequate amount of water has been available for major cities such as New York, Trenton, Camden and Philadelphia.

But on Dec. 2 the four-state Delaware River Basin Commission issued a drought warning, urging strict water conservation measures.

By agreement, New York City releases water from its reservoirs to maintain an adequate flow in the Delaware River. But since June the reserves in those reservoirs have dropped from 220 billion gallons to about 80 billion gallons. And the future is bleak.

Predictions for precipitation over the next 30 days fall below January's average of four inches.

"Right now," said Dirk Hofman, New Jersey's alternate commission representative, "I'm looking for rain and warm weather, and we're getting snow and cold weather."

But even flood-level rains would only solve the water problem for this year, Hofman says.

This area is so unconscious of the possibility of water shortages that the water systems that serve northern New Jersey by design depend on above-average rainfall to provide customers with enough water.

And only 1.5 million of New Jersey's $16 million annual budget for water resources is set aside for water supply programs. The Byrne administration has asked voters to approve a $345 million bond issue next fall to pay for a major overhaul of the state's water supply system.

Officials say they have been lucky so far, in that the drought has not hit hard enough to drastically harm crops, and no industry has had to close or lay off workers because of the water shortage.But the chance of those things happening next summer becomes greater with each passing dry day.

"I can't make rain," Schiffman said. "All we can do is conserve what we have." He says water systems will never be allowed to run dry, but stricter conservation measures will be enforced.

He says he expects greater compliance with the rationing program when the quarterly water bills go out next month with surcharges for those residences that have used more than 50 gallons a day for each person.

What Schiffman says he really wants is for the heavens to get mad and stormy and drop 10 inches of rain.

Until that happens, he said, "I'm depressed when it's sunny."