Michael C. Savvides, owner of the oceanfront Ramada Inn, has seen the future for this city and he says it hinges on one thing -- water. Not ocean water -- the foundation of this booming city's past -- but drinking water.

Some say Virginia Beach will be out of drinking water in less than nine years.

"If we are not successful in getting a significant supply of water, Virginia Beach will have to be declared a disaster area," said Savvides, president of the Virginia Beach chapter of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce.

City officials, anxious to avoid anything that might slow the boom that has made the 21-year-old city the largest in Virginia and one of the fastest growing in the nation, have considered everything from towing icebergs to the area to building a huge desalination plant to tap the Atlantic.

The only practical alternative, the city officials say, is a $176 million, 85-mile concrete pipeline that eventually would carry 60 million gallons of water daily from Lake Gaston, a man-made lake on the North Carolina border. Without water Virginia Beach could not continue the explosive growth that, fueled by the massive migration of families from Norfolk, has seen its population soar from 87,000 when it was formed in 1963 to an estimated 310,000 today.

But the ambitious pipeline plan, which has been approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, has enraged North Carolinians, alarmed environmentalists and sparked one of the stormiest water wars on the East Coast. A court battle is under way in two federal courts, and many say it could be a long, complex and costly fight.

"We just hate to see our natural resources taken away from us for the economic development of other areas, when it would jeopardize our economic development in the future," said Harold E. Carawan, who owns a carpet store in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., south of Lake Gaston.

The problem, say both sides, is that state and local leaders are being asked to reconcile the seemingly irreconcible demands of a highly populated, booming city with those of a poor, sparsely populated, rural area that is hungry for development.

While water wars among Western states have been routine for decades, they have only recently moved East. Droughts, groundwater pollution and development booms are combining in many areas in the East to place unprecedented demand on what environmentalists say is a limited amount of good drinking water. The result, from the Great Lakes to the Florida Keys, has been an eruption of disputes over who owns water and who has a right to use it.

The Washington metropolitan area has been able to avoid such battles through pacts and agreements that determine how the region's water resources are allocated. While a similar pact between North Carolina and Virginia has been suggested, most officials involved say the furor over Lake Gaston has made such an agreement unrealistic.

Carawan, a member of a group that has joined North Carolina in the court fight, lives in Gasburg, Va., near Lake Gaston, which was created in the 1960s when Virginia Electric and Power Co. dammed the Roanoke River to generate electricity. The lake weaves back and forth for 30 miles across the Virginia and North Carolina border.

Carawan said homeowners on the lake's 350-mile shoreline fear the pipeline will impair fishing and boating and cut property values.

North Carolina officials say crops depend on irrigation from the Roanoke River. The state's Sierra Club has warned that the pipeline could threaten both water quality and wildlife. Virginia Beach officials deny the charges, saying studies show the pipeline would not cause environmental problems.

For years, Virginia Beach relied on Norfolk for water. After severe droughts in 1977 and 1980, Norfolk said that it had no more to share and that when Virginia Beach's contract expires in 1993 it will not be renewed.

The droughts were sobering for Virginia Beach business and government. Water use was severely restricted, raising fears for the multimillion-dollar tourist trade.

About 6,000 persons, for and against the pipeline, jammed Corps of Engineers hearings. After considering the testimony, the Corps approved a construction permit.

Virginia Beach and North Carolina immediately filed lawsuits over whether the city had to prepare an environmental impact statement, a costly, time-consuming study not required by the Corps.

North Carolina has argued that an impact statement was required because the pipeline could cause environmental problems. The Corps concluded, however that not enough water would be taken from Lake Gaston to change water levels or disrupt fish or wildlife.

Virginia Beach officials call the pipeline a must. "The alternative is no water," says city public utilities Director Aubrey V. Watts Jr.

"Water is a necessity," said motel owner Savvides. "It is life or death. It is not a luxury."

"We won't ever deny people water, if it's necessary for life," said North Carolina's Carawan. "But that's not the case." He said that if Virginia Beach joined with other Tidewater jurisdictions, they could come up with other alternatives.