Clean water: will it be just a memory?; Water: The Nature, Uses, and Future of Our Most Precious and Abused Resource, by Fred Powledge. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux Inc. 423 pp. $14.95.

Like a river, this book sweeps gently through calm and thoughtful reflections - and then rushes headlong into controversy. First, Powledge gives readers reason to admire water's beauty and power, its nurturing and cleansing qualities.

Then he comes to the torrent of political and economic clashes that too often have left water unfit for any use. Powledge exposes one industry after another found guilty of poisoning precious water supplies. And he points to evidence that government officials have acted as accomplices.

Powledge visits towns suddenly confronted with undrinkable water. In Hopewell , Va., for instance, he shows Allied Chemical Company being caught and fined $13 million in 1976 for pumping toxic materials into the James River. And then he traces how, within five years, influential news media were portraying the company as hero rather than villain in that pollution story.

Citing US and foreign studies, Powledge warns of a global water crisis: ''We have learned that there is no place to hide .... no corner of the nation, or of the world, for that matter, that can claim immunity from water contamination.''

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