The long-awaited deepening of the Hampton Roads Harbor will begin by this spring, according to Virginia members of Congress, who have fought for years to get money to dredge the port deep enough to handle large coal ships.

"After many years of struggle, it appears that we are about to begin the improvements to the harbor and channels in Hampton Roads that are needed if the port is to remain competitive, particularly in the international coal marketplace," said Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.)

"This has been a long and tiring process, but at last we have accomplished our goals," said Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R-Va.) "The deepening of the harbor is essential to maintaining the economic viability of our waterfront, which exports nearly 80 percent of the nation's coal."

Before adjourning for August recess, Congress approved a supplemental appropriations bill that included $48 million for work on 41 water projects.

Congress froze the money until May 15, 1986 to give itself time to pass legislation to specify how much of the cost of water projects will be borne by the federal government and how much by state and local beneficiaries.

If Congress fails to pass such authorizing legislation by the May 15 deadline, the Army Corps of Engineers can negotiate individually with each locality and begin distributing the construction money.

The May 15 deadline was a compromise between the House Public Works Committee, which did not want any funds distributed until an authorization bill was passed, and members of Congress from states that want construction of water projects to start immediately.

No new corps water projects have been authorized since 1976, because of the cost-sharing dispute in Congress. That has put on hold hundreds of water projects, ranging from flood control structures to other port dredging projects.

Two other Virginia water projects were also included in the supplemental bill -- a flood wall in downtown Richmond and a canal in Virginia Beach.

The Richmond project includes the construction of flood walls and levees along the James River in the downtown area. The Virginia Beach canal project is designed to drain storm waters away from low-lying areas of the city.