This series of articles is based on a three-month investigation that included a review of reports prepared over a six-year period by the General Accounting Office; material gathered by the House Public Works subcommittee on investigations and review and the investigative staff of the House Appropriations Committee; a series of consultant reports prepared for the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency; court records and confidential government audits. In addition, local, state and federal officials were interviewed in dozens of cities across the country.

Elaborate hulks of expensive and failing machiery litter the American landscape, the wreckage of Washington's good intentions. They are monuments built by one of the nation's largest and most idealistic public works programs: the drive to clean up America's water. And much of it doesn't work.

At Lake Tahoe, Calif, world-acclaimed advanced waste water treatment plant whose effluent was heralded as "clean enough to drink" has killed fish regularly in the next county, to where the treated water is piped.

In Greenville, Maine, a sophisticated sewage treatment plant was padlocked after completion because the engineers couldn't get it to work.

And, rising out of the Mojave Desert near Las Vegas, is a $53 million plant city officials say was built to solve a pollution threat to Lake Mead. The threat, it turns out, didn't exist.

The construction grants program of the Environmental Protection Agency built these plants as part of America's premier effort to clean up pollution in its lake and rivers.

Launched by Congress in 1972 on a tide of fervent rhetoric and with a promise to end water pollution by 1985, the program has funneled $30 billin in federal funds to thousands of communities for the construction of waste water treatment plants.

But the program has achieved dismal results. After nine years of massive federal investment to build or upgrade sewage treatment works in 18,000 communities, about 2,000 of the projects have been completed, and most are small plants in small communities where pollution threats are often the least serious.

While no comprehensive statistics are available, authoritative government surveys of the completed plants show that at least 60 percent of them, and perhaps as much as 90 percent, don't perform up to anti-pollution requirements more than half of the time.

Nearly a third of the federally funded plants have been designed, built or operated so poorly that they are effectively out of commission much of the time.

Ten year and $30 billion later, water quality in America may be only marginally better despite this heavy investment. Experts say the major clean-up investments made by private industry probably are more responsible for the water improvements that have occurred.

Meanwhile, horror stories about local sewer scandals, cost overruns, design failures, lawsuits and construction controversies are being played out in hundreds of cities across the country.

Except for an occasional low-key congressional inquiry, this nationwide breadkdown of an enormous public works program has occurred with little public notice. Each city with a failed system or a sewage scandal suffers its problems in relative isolation, often unaware of the national epidemic.

The consensus of administrators and critics of the EPA grants program is that it will fail to reach its ambitious goals of making all rivers and lakes "fishable" and "swimmable" by 1983 and eliminating the discharge of all pollutants into American waterways by 1985.

How did the good intentions and high hopes of a decade result in national failure?

The blame spreads in several directions: to Congress and the driven spending philosophy of the evironmental architects who saw an opportunity to capitalize on the country's concern about pollution; to the almost blind faith in high technology solutions for water pollution problems, and to a host of lapses in control by EPA.

Those lapses included a benevolent federal negligence as a few hundred engineering consultant firms in effect took the grants program captive through their abilty to influence the decisions on technology.

State and local officials, spurred on by the EPA, have set water quality standards for rivers and lakes that have little to do with swimming or fishing goals, but are tailored to the capabilities of expensive, high-technology treatment plants promoted by their highly paid engineering consultants.

In many cases, advanced waste treatment plants were sold to communities before adequate scientific analysis determined the pollution threat to their water.

And, instead of concentrating the available federal funds in areas where the greatest pollution threats existed, members of Congress rushed to spread the pork barrel of the grants program across the country based on congressional district size.

In the beginning, worry about pollution enabled environmental spokesmen to stir the national conscience and create a powerful clean water constituency as part of the general environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The fears of water degradation and depletion were real and intense. In some regions, antipollution campaigns had been building momentum since the end of World War II. So armed, the movement's political gurus seized an opportunity to win spending commitments never before though possible.

But there was little discussion of the true costs of environmental clean-up. To raise the question was almost a breach of faith.

"Can we afford clean water?" asked then-senator Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) during the floor debates of 1972. "Can we afford rivers and lakes and streams and oceans which continue to make possible life on this plant? . . . Those questions were never asked as we destroyed the waters of our nation, and they deserve no answers as we finally move to restore and renew them."

As the funding floodgates opened, the players in another forum positioned themselves to benefit. One Wall Street analyst noted at the time: "We project above-average growth rates for the environmental control markets . . . [and] a favorable psychological atmosphere for the stocks."

Sewerage equipment manufacturers with names like Ecodyne and Envirotech became the "buy now" recommendations of stockbrokers. Hundreds of consultant firms set up environmental engineering divisions overnight to garner retainers from every American city forced to study the adequacy of its sewage treatment facilities.

EPA was endowed by Congress to pay the bulk of the costs, 75 percent, for waste water treatment plants built under the grants program. Other federal loan assistance was made available to many communities. There was little incentive for penny pinching. The attitude that "it's someone else's money" was cited by one congressional report as prevalent.

As a result, examples of waste, poor planning, faulty design, mismanagement -- and fraud -- abound:

In Toledo, millions of dollars in federal and local funds have been spent on a modern sewage treatment plant that has had many operating difficulties, but outside consultants have found that millions of gallons of raw sewage never make it to the plant. They are diverted directly into Lake Erie and the Maumee River through numerous bypasses in the sewers.

In Sacramento, the EPA has funded a $500 million project to close more than 20 sewer plants and bulid 85 miles of huge concrete pipes to a single, giant sewer plant, none of which will improve the water's quality.

The New Mexico state water pollution control director "invented" a sewer district with an EPA grant number and won $400,000 in state matching funds. It took state law enforcement agencies three years to catch up to the fiction of the "Greater Mesilla Valley Sanitation District."

The tiny Alaskan town of Skagway (population 850) has abandoned it EPA-required waste treatment plant because the town cannot afford the fuel to run it. In addition, the plant was located below the high-water mark on a saltwater canal where 20-foot tidal surges occasionally flood it.

In St. Louis, the city was required by the EPA to remove a high degree of suspended solids from the waste water it puts into the Mississippi River just below its junction with the Missouri, but the river's muddy waters are already thick with suspended solids from agricultural runoff. It's like pouring clean water into dirty water," one official said.

Outraged officials of Suffolk County, N.Y., in January filed a $270 million lawsuit alleging a "pattern of racketeering" by some of th engineers, consultants, contractors and former county officials who presided over $1 billion in cost overruns and $1 million in alleged kickbacks on a big sewer project in that eastermost Long Island county.

The ambitious orators of the environmental movement erected the EPA clean water grants program as an act of faith. "Our planet is beset with a cancer which threatens our very existence . . . . If we entertain any serious hopes of preserving life on this planet, the water pollution bill will have to be paid, soon," Muskie said in the floor debate of 1972.

Today, in the Reagan administration, the faith has changed. Questioning costs is the new catechism. The EPA annual survey to determine the cost of reaching the goals set in 1972 now exceeds $100 billion, a chilling figure to the newcomers.

For the fiscal year that begins in October, President Reagan's budget director, David A. Stockman, has proposed a one-year funding moratorium for the grants program. Funding would resume the following year at $2.4 billion, $1 billion less than the Carter administration's last yearly level.

The renewed program would concentrate on high-priority projects, mostly in urban areas, and would leave sewer pipe expansion -- growth -- to the cities and states.

But fundamental questions remain for Reagan. Is the administraiton committed to the grants program as the best method of achieving water quality goals based on the "fishable, swimmable" standard?

Can it overcome the bureaucratic snares that have ensnarled success in hundreds of cities? Can it get a grip on the current runaway program, the technology that propels it and the industry that thrives on it?

The grants program affects nearly every congressional district, which will make the budget cutting a difficult political business. But even deep cuts will not eliminate some of the basic sources of waste that have sent millions, perhaps billions of dollars down the drain.

"The real trick is to cut the budget and keep cleaning the water," said Larry Silverman, legislative director of the Clean Water Action Project. "Any fool can cut the budget."

At the center of responsibility is the EPA, whose employes are in many cases the most severe critics of the program. Thomas Jorling, the EPA's assistant administrator in charge of water programs from 1977 through 1979, said the grants program " . . . is a microcosm of a lot of federal programs that are put together to serve many masters."

In the Senate, he said, the goal was environmental protection; in the House, it was public works, where pork-barrel enthusiasm added pressures to fund plants of questionable priority in favored congressional districts.

To the states and municipalities, the goal was control of growth and progress, for where the sewer lines go in America, so go the new subdivisions and shopping centers.

While Congress was willing to spend $3 billion to $4 billion a year for sewer plant construction, it consistently refused to spend a few million extra for adequate numbers of program supervisors, auditors and investigators, according to Jorling.

"The system works when closely supervised," Jorling said, but in the absence of tough state and federal oversight, "There's just so many ways this program has been ripped off that I'm sure there are cases where people have not built whole portions of these plants or built them so poorly they don't work."

As the EPA consistently failed to meet deadlines for setting limitations on various pollutants, the agency at the same time organized "steam teams" to get the grant money out faster in response to pressure from Congress.

The rush to get the money out the door was such that in the last month of the 1977 fiscal year EPA officials frantically pushed $3 billion through to the states, representing the bulk of the $4.5 billion appropriation for the entire year.

"There have been extreme pressures to make grants for questionable projects," said a House Appropriations subcommittee staff report in 1979.

David Jones, the General Accounting Office official whose critical reports on the program stand two feet high on his desk, said he believes that the new president is "crazy if he doesn't cut it. This [program] is an example of a mandatory technology solution that ignores local conditions, the assimilative capacity of a body of water and less expensive alternatives like septic tanks." CAPTION: Picture 1, A $53 million plant near Las Vegas built to solve a pollution threat that didn't exist. City of Las Vegas; Picture 2, Suds from detergents dumped into Lake Erie stretch along a 300-foot beachfront near Erie, Pa., in this 1965 photo. Massive doses of money expected to fix this. UPI