She sees herself as no militant, no crusader and, in fact, no great shakes at all. If pushed, Laura Howe will admit only to being a conservationist-by-necessity.

At the beginning of the severe water emergency that endangered this community for a scary time last winter, she took to conserving water as if easing the crisis depended on her alone. Officials were saying that if no rain fell and if water use was not reduced the town would go dry -- in a matter of days.

While others in Greenwich were playing games, Laura Howe, who is a school nurse, decided she and her family would play for keeps. Everyone was limited to three-minute showers, every other day. In the washing machine, the white clothes were done first. Then the rinse was recycled to become the wash water for the dark clothes. The toilet was flushed three times a day.

In all, she estimated that her conservation cut her family's in-house consumption to 15 gallons a day per person -- a 60 percent reduction.

Because of citizens like Laura Howe, plus some luck in the weather, the drying out of Greenwich was averted. This time, that is.

Greenwich is one of thousands of towns and cities enduring the cruelties of water torture, American style. Drop by drop, one failure after another -- mismanaged water companies, misguided federal and local water policies, agribusiness wastage, a national; indifference to conserving -- wears into the false security under which citizens were led to believe that water is, and always will be, as plentiful as it is cheap.

In 1970, in "Water Wasteland," one of the best of the books that created a new awareness of the environment's fragility. David Zwick predicted that "unless water-use patterns are drastically altered, 'demand' for water will soon outrun usable supplies."

The patterns were not even mildly altered. Now, 11 years later, Zwick, as head of the Clean Water Action Project, believes that "America is living on borrowed water and borrowed time. While energy shortages dominated public attention during most of the 1970s, a coming water crisis has crept up close behind. Just as the gas crunch of 1973-74 foretold a future of permanent energy shortages, the droughts of 1975-1976 -- now nearly forgotten, even in some of the places where they were most severe -- warned of America's worsening water problems."

The problem within the problem is that this is a political issue that tends to be as dull as unconserved dishwater. Rep. Robert Roe, a New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the House subcommittee on water resources, says that rainfalls filling up a town's reservoir often "give people a false hope that the shortage is over." Roe recently held hearings in three eastern cities and has plans to take his subcommittee to all parts of the country. But he is new to this chairmanship. Whether or not he will push hard for a comprehensive water conservation program isn't known.

At this moment, the pushing seems to be the other way. James Watt has recommended that the independent federal Water Resources Council be eliminated, with its functions to be under his control. By this power play, Watt presumes to give himself a major and perhaps decisive role in the administration's water policies, even though officials in other agencies -- EPA, the Corps of Engineers, Agriculture -- are seasoned and better qualified to make water policy decisions that serve the public interest.

If America is running out of water, what's needed is a national consensus that frantic schemes for increasing the supply are less the answer than reducing the consumption. Brent Blackwelder of the Environmental Policy Institute argues that "the drought currently facing many areas of the nation can be a blessing if it forces cities and towns to look at their waste of water and to undertake a number of simple but cost-effective measures to improve efficiency in water use." He questions extravagant plans for more canals and cams "when for the same amount of money far more water can be obtained by repairing leaks and installing water-saving fixtures."

In Laura Howe's home, the fixtures are in place. So also is the sense that whether the water table is high or low at this particular moment, conservation is a necessity.