When Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N. M.) heard the names of those who had signed up to lobby on S. 790, it sounded as if the debate on his bill would involve a bunch of good-government types carrying on a philosophical discussion about public policy.

Among those supporting the legislation, which would require barges to pay a toll for using the nation's inland waterways, were such pristine-sounding groups as the "Environmental Policy Center," the "Coalition for American Rivers," the "Council for a Sound Waterways Policy" and the "Public Interest Economics Center."

Those opposing the waterway toll included the "Association for the Improvement of the Mississippi River," the "Upper Mississippi Valley Association" and a passel of former congressmen and executive branch officials.

In fact, as Domenici gradually discovered, the efforts of all those organizations and officials were financed by the two major combatants in the lobbying war: the railroads fighting for barge tolls, and the barge lines fighting against.

There are a few independent voices debating S. 790. But they have been dwarfed by the political and commercial interests struggling to scuttle, or to save, the bill.

Commander-in-chief of the allied forces lobbying for the waterway tolls is Joe Feeney, a genial, 53-year-old bundle of energy who is a lawyer for the Western Railroads Association in Chicago.

Feeney has been lobbying for years on another waterway issue - the proposed $400 million lock on the Mississippi River at Alton, III. Because Domenici, for political reasons, linked his barge toll proposal to legislation authorizing the Alton lock, Feeney has become the railroads' chief lobbyist on both subjects.

As soon as Feeney began to plan his campaign, however, he found himself up against a ticklish tactical problem.

The railroads, as chief competitor of the barge industry, are naturally suspect when they speak out on waterway issues, Feeney explained recently. To make a convincing case for the waterway charge, he would have to find some allies outside the railroad business.

"I knew there were environmentalists and other people out there who agreed with us," Feeney said. "But these guys are getting along on baloney sandwiches - they didn't have the money or manpower to do the kind of studies you need."

Feeney, of course, had money, but the problem was getting the environmentalists to make it.

"If you ever wanted to see a bunch of people who were skittish about dealing with railroads, it was those bearded environmentalists," Feeney said. "Hell, some of the guys had sued us a few times."

In essence, the environmentalists told Feeney that they could not clean up the world with dirty money. So Feeney set up a laundry.

In a vacant office at the Western Railroads' headquarters, Feeney established the "Council for a Sound Waterways Policy." Each month the railroad group writes a check to the council, which in turn sends a monthly grant to environmentalists lobbying for waterway charges and against the Alton lock.

Originally, Feeney said, the council was to be jointly funded by railroads, rail unions, and environmentalists. In fact, he said, the railroads ahve chipped in about $100,000 and the only other contribution was a check for about $1,000 from the Sierra Club.

Feeney said the council has provided grants of "probably a little over $1,500 per month" to the Environmental Policy Center, a Washington organization which has coordinated environmental lobbying on 5.790 in the capital. That represents about 10 per cent of the center's budget.

The council sends another $5,000 month the Coalition on American Rivers, a conservation group in Urbana, III., which has fought several improvement projects on the Mississippi.

Feeney said the Izaak Walton League of America has also received "material support," but no cash grants, from the railroad council.

Representatives of the center, the coaltion and the Walton League all testified in favor of Domenici's waterway fee plan before a Senate Public Works subcommittee last week.

None of them mentioned any connection with the railroad association.

In contrast, a spokesman for the "Pensacola Environmental Association" who testified against the bill stated clearly that his testimony had been paid for bybarge interests.

Another recipient of the railroads' largesse is the Public Interest Economic Center, a Wahington-based group established to "provide some public interest input into economic decision-making." The center has actively lobbied on behalf of waterway charges.

Lee Lane, of the economic center, is forthright about his support from the rail industry.

"We decided we wanted to help Sen. Domenici, because the policy of free waterways is a tremendous boondoggle," Lane says. "But we needed some support, so we looked around and got a $35,000 grant from the railroads. Without it, we wouldn't be able to do much on the issue."

Lane says the railroad money constitutes "about a tenth" of the center's budget.

Despite their ingenuity in aiding allies, however, the railroads have made a basic strategic error in their lobbying on S. 790, according to some observers.

Of the bill's two main provisions the railroads support waterway tolls and violently oppose the new Alton facility. But they have concentrated much of their money and attention on the Alton project, treating the toll question as almost an afterthought.

"Theu'ring the toll question as almost an afterthought.

"They're waging war, all right, out they're fighting the wrong battle," says Lane, the economist. "Setting up a nationwide system of tolls for the barges would be a much greater victory for the railroads than stopping that one lock."

A Shefferd Lang, who describes himself as the "long view man" for the Association of American Railroads, agrees. "If we had tolls, the pressure for all the new locks and dams would drop, because the barges would have to pay for them.

"But I can't get our people to see that. They've been fighting the (Alton) dam for so long they can't see past it."

The railroads' opponents, the barge interests, have no similar myopia.

Over the years the bargement have established a network of "associations" and "committees" to lobby for the Alton lock, a long-standing dream of the waterway industry.

But this year, when it looked as if Domenici might be making progress on his toll proposal, a group of big barge lines and major shippers financed a new "American Inland Waterways Committee," to concentrate on S.790.

The committee went fishing for lobbyists in Washington, and offered sufficiently lucrative bait to land two of the biggest.

One was Timmons and Co., the firm set up by William Timmons and Tom Korologos, who had been the chief lobbying agents for the Nixon and Ford administrations. For balance, the committee also retained the firm headed by George Smathers, the former Democratic senator from Florida.

Signing up Smathers was a particular coup. For the past five years, the smooth Floridian had been lobbyist for the railroads, and he was known as a dedicated champion of rail interests.

Last month Smathers ended his rail contract. As of 10 days ago, he became an equally dedicated advocate of his former adversaries, the barge operators.

The switch was financed by Louis B. Susman, a St Louis Lawyer who had been hired by the bargemen to run their Inland Waterways Committee.

Susman, a prominent Democratic fund-raiser, was a political patron of James Symington, a liberal Democrat who lost his seat in Congress in 1976. Searching for a suitable job, Symington ended up in the Smathers firm. Soon therafter, Susman's barge committee arrived, too, as a major new Smathers client.

Under the Registration of Lobbies Act, the firms was required to report its new client and a fair estimate of the fee it would receive. Symington dutifully filed on March 31 a statement saying that his fee during the 95th Congress from the Susman committee would be "$500 or more."

That would seem to be an understatement. Railroad officials say Smathers received about $8,000 per month, plus expenses, when he lobbied for them.

Members of the firm said their fee arrangements are "confidential."

Symington did provide some insight, however, into his lobbying tactics during an interview last week.

"People who want to achieve a certain result in Congress shouldn't rely on pressure tactics or Washington lawyers," Symington said. "The thing to do is to bring in average citizens to see their congressmen and talk about the legislation."

Last week Symington discussed S.790 with Sen. Mike Gravel (S-Alaska), the chairman of the subcommittee handling the bill.

The "average citizen" he invited with him to the senator's office, Symington said, was Paul Hall.

Paul Hall is a citizen of New York who happens to be president of the Seafarers' International Union, one of the major political forces in Gravel's state. In Gravel's 1974 reelection campaign he was given $15,500 by Hall's union.

Symington said he has also contacted executive agencies as they try to establish the Carter administration's stance on S.13-. He said his position as a former congressman is no significant help in gaining access to top executive officials.

"This is an open government," he said. "All kinds of citizens are being welcomed into offices of those in high positions."

When he was in Congress, Symington said on the Commerce Committee with Brock Adams, who is now, as Secretary of Transportation, deeply involved in determining federal waterway policy.

A Transportation Department information officer said last week that Adams has had one meeting on the waterway issue with people from outside the government:

"He had a talk with Jimmy Symington about it."