In hundreds of American cites, mayors, councilmen, city managers, county executives -- all sorts of officials -- are breaking the law and are, potentially at least, subject to imprisonment because the sewer plants given to them by the federal government don't work.

This rampant lawlessness may not be their fault, but local officials nonetheless are technically culpable as water polluters. As such, many live under the threatened wrath of the Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces the 1972 Clean Water Act.

And the wrath of Washington comes in many forms, from notices of violation and administrative orders to civil contempt charges, criminal fines and even jail.

Local officials everywhere are in this predicament because the federal government's well-intentioned program to renew the purity of the nation's lakes, rivers and streams has gone awry. So far, thanks to the disarray of federal enforcement, nobody has gone to jail over a faulty sewage treatment plant.

A handful of municipalities and their officials, however have been convicted in recent years fo falsifying reports on the pollution discharged from community treatment plants. The most recent criminal conviction, according to EPA, involves Ashland, Va., where city officials pleaded guilty in March, 1980, to doctoring reports. The town paid a $2,500 fine and was placed on one year's probation.

About $30 billion has been spent to plan or construct waste-water treatment facilties in 18,000 communities as the primary effort to eliminate water pollution.

But after nine years only 2,000 plants have been completed and, at any give time, according to various congressional and EPA samplings, more than half are not working well and are violating EPA anti-pollution permits. The most frequently cited reasons include poor design, operation and maintenance.

Another problem, not cited by the EPA, is the tendency to try to cure some problems by throwing money at them where underfunding is not the difficulty.

"Violation of [pollution] permits is the nor, not the exception," concluded a November, 1980, report of the General Accounting Office. The permits describe the types and amounts of pollutants that can be discharged.

It is lucky for this generation of potential public service "criminals" that the EPA has a wretched record of enforcing municipal water pollution control laws.

Municipal enforcement "was not our focus," said Sara Compton, EPA deputy assistant administrator for water pollution enforcement. "For the last several years," she said, "we went after industrial [polluters]."

EPA's poor record, however, has not prevented it from dispatching frequent reminders to local officials that its will must be done. A 1978 EPA telegram to Las Vegas authorities who were resisting an unneeded advanced wastewater treatment plant read in part:

"If for any reason . . . construction is stopped or discontinued, current and future EPA grants for wastewater treatment works will be jeopardized and will probably force recovery of [already] expended federal funds. Since violation of the compliance schedule would occur, EPA enforcement actions will ensue. Remedies under law are penalties up to $25,000 per day. . . ."

In an effort to determine the scope of municipal violations, GAO investigators studied 242 plants in the Northeast, Upper Midwest and Far West for 12 months.

The plants, it found, were doing a miserable job.

Of the 100 sewage plants studied in the Northeast, 94 violated pollution discharge permits during at least one of the 12 months checked; 61 violated the permit limits for more than half the year. And, nearly a third violated discharge permits so seriously -- for four consecutive months or more -- that they did little to cleanse streams of raw sewage and other pollutants.

The figures were similar in the other regions. Thirty-six of 92 plants in the Upper Midwest and 22 of 50 West Coast plants violated their permits for more than six months.

In the United States today, if you want to dump anything dirtier than tap water into a river, lake, stream, ocean, bayou, creek or drainage ditch, you have to get a permit.

The EPA calls these National Pollution Discharge Eilimination System (NPDES) permits. They set legal discharge limits for numerous substances, including particles that rob oxygen from the water as they decompose. Oxygen-starved water is deadly to fish.

The permits als set limits for suspended solids and coliform bacteria, which are native to sewage and can cause a variety of diseases.

These pollutants can be reduced to safe levels and the wastewater substantially cleansed by standard secondary treatment plants. If designed and operated properly, the two-step plants settle out solids (primary) and then use microorganisms to speed decomposition (secondary).

But when designed or operated poorly, the plants are ineffective. "I used to represent some municipalities in New England," said EPA's Compton, "and they don't have top-notch people running these plants."

In Merrimack, N.H., municipal planners built a modern secondary treatment plant in the early 1970s for $5.4 million, almost $3 million of which was federal funds. But when the plant received its EPA pollution permit in 1974, local officials discovered they had misjudged the effect on the plant of an Anheuser-Busch brewery, whose high levels of organic wastes cause regular overloading.

In 1974, EPA issued an enforcement letter to Merrimack and a notice of violation. Since neither the city nor the brewery was willing to accept blame, nothing happened.

In 1975, an administrative order was issued by the agency, again citing the violations and demanding to know how the city planned to get back into compliance.

EPA finally gave the city a hint. It told the city to apply for another federal grant to upgrade the plant. A $3.7 million grant was issued, more than doubling the original federal investment.

According to GAO, when the modifications were completed at Merrimack in 1977, the plant continued to violate its pollution permit, but "no further enforcement action has been taken."

Money, frequently too much of it, often is the root of the trouble.

To meet more stringent pollution permit requirements set by EPA and the states, many communities were forced to build advanced waste treatment plants. More than 1,000 have been built or are under construction at an estimated cost of $21 billion.

Many were forced on communities without adequate study to determine whether they would produce measurable water quality improvements, as in Las Vegas, where one county official said an advanced phosphorus removal plant was "shoved down our throats."

Adding to this municipal grief is the fact that this generation of sophisticated sewer plants has a dismal performance record, putting local officials under the gun of EPA anit-pollution enforcers.

From 1977 to 1980, EPA officials say they issued about 1,300 administrative orders to municipalities, but have no centralized information on whether the orders are being complied with or ignored. In all, agency officials acknowledge they have been slow to move against the cities.

The GAO concurred: "[EPA] enforcement action varied from none to minimal and followed no consistent pattern."

Meanwhile, EPA has conducted a vigorous enforcement program against private industry to eliminate discharge of industrial wastes, some toxic, into the waterways. The GAO study concluded that "wastewater treatment plants that continously violate their permits are not helping the nation meet its water quality goals. Federal grants are provided to build . . . plants that can meet their permit conditions. But we are not getting what we paid for. Instead, we are getting something less, which represents a potential waste of tens of millions of dollars in federal, state and local funds."

GAO officials looked behind their statistics at 15 plants to determine why they violated pollution permits. Three-quarters had both faulty designs and inadequate maintenance. Five suffered overloads from local industries whose effluents either gummed up equipment or killed the microorganisms used to speed decomposition.

Even when local officials have scrupulously complied with EPA pollution permit conditions, they sometimes have paid dearly. EPA regulations -- carrying the force of law -- govern virtually every state and local activity in building wastewater treatment plants.

Officials in Northern Virginia communities served by the Upper Occuquan Reservoir, for instance, contend that an early EPA regulation requiring sewage plants to be constructed in "operable segments" added $32 million to he price tag of the sophisticated Centreville plant.

The purpose of the regulation was to assure the federal government that for every block of funds, it got something that contributed to cleaning up the water. The effect of this regulation, however, ran counter to normal construction practices.

"We ended up building the project ass-backwards," said Norman W. Cole Jr., former director of Virginia's State Water Control Board.

Instead of using one block of grant funds to build sewer collectors to the site, another to build the plant and yet another for a reservoir system, EPA required Northern Virginia officials to build a totally connected system in phases so each phase could process wastewater.

The EPA requirement forced the sewer district to redesign the plant for the phased construction, increased the number of contracts as well as the EPA review of the contracts and forced contractors to return to the project over and over as the phases progressed.

The factors dragged our construction over four years and upped the price tag of the project from about $50 million to $80 million.

EPA did not agree with this figure, but acknowledged in its analysis that the "operable segment" rule cost the Northern Virginias "$11 million more in grant funds and three more years to complete." CAPTION: Picture 1, EPA requirements on construction of the Upper Occoquan Reservoir sewage treatment plant added $32 million to the price as well as taking four years longer to build. By Douglas Chevalier -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, The Merrimack, N.H., treatment plant is still unable to meet pollution standards despite two federal grants which have more than doubled the orginal U.S. involvement.