It is difficult on a glorious fall day to see this bucolic setting as a battleground, but there, rising on giant concrete piers from the floor of the Ohio River, is the objective: the antiquated Gallipolis Lock and Dam, where the average barge now waits eight hours for passage.

Barge operators call Gallipolis the major bottleneck on the Ohio system, where 20 locks and dams lift or lower barge traffic up and down the river between Pittsburgh and the Mississippi at Cairo, Ill.

The Army Corps of Engineers agrees and has ambitious plans to build a new lock and rehabilitate the 1937 dam. But standing in the way, armed mostly with a bottom line, is the Office of Management and Budget. The question is, who will pay the $400 million those plans will cost?

Since the 19th century, the answer has been the general taxpayer.

The Corps has been his agent, building and operat-ing the nation's 225 locks and dams and dredgingand maintaining channels in seaports and rivers.

The Reagan administration wants change. In proposed legislation, it asks that users pay 100 percent of the costs of constructing, operating and maintaining ports, river channels and locks and dams.

Until the battle is resolved, the future of the Gallipolis project and the question of whether major seaports such as Baltimore can deepen their channels to handle larger ships are tied in knots.

The paralysis affects a major component of the U.S. transportation industry. Barges on inland waterways carried almost 10 percent of the 5 billion tons of intercity freight moved in the United States in 1980. U.S. seaports handled 1.4 trillion tons of cargo in 1980 and annually contribute about $15 billion to gross national product.

But, in seven years, Congress has authorized only one new navigation project -- either a port or a lock and dam. That is the environmentally controversial replacement Lock and Dam 26, scheduled for completion in 1986 on the Mississippi near Alton, Ill.

Environmental protection requirements have contributed to the paralysis and, combined with financial questions, have created a situation in which, the Corps estimates, it takes an average of 20 years to conceive a navigation project, gain a multitude of necessary approvals and complete it.

"Nobody can tolerate a 20-year cycle," said Anthony J. Tazzoli, director of the port department at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "That puts port directors in the position of trying to predict what configuration ships will be 20 years in the future. Couple that with the fact that recent administrations have allowed no new starts in dredging , and the total port system is really falling apart. It does not work."

The turmoil stirred by the administration's goal of 100 percent cost recovery has pitted small ports against large ports and Great Lakes ports against Mississippi River barges. It has also left barge operators everywhere throwing up their hands at a time when markets for grain and coal -- two of their major cargoes -- are depressed.

Standing on the sidelines and cheering at the unrest is the Association of American Railroads, whose members can be depended upon to froth whenever the subject of federal government subsidies for barge operators, or truckers, comes to the fore.

The lobbying is intense. "A railroad person came up to me to complain about all we've done for inland waterways the other day," Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis said, "but when you talk to waterway people, all they complain about is what we've done for the railroads.

"Then you talk to the railroads again, and they say the trucking industry is getting a break. You talk to the trucking industry, and they still talk about the right of way you gave the railroads in 1860."

"Our objective," Lewis said, "is not to make any mode of transportation noncompetitive with the other but to try to get out of their way so they can compete."

Barge operators lost the war over precedent during the Carter administration, when the first waterway user tax was imposed on diesel fuel for their tugs. That tax, now 4 cents a gallon, will go to 10 cents in 1985 although, even at that level, it will not cover the Corps' capital and operating expenses.

Ports have traditionally built their own land-side facilities, and J. Ron Brinson, president of the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), said investment has kept current with need.

New York is a good example: although the old finger docks in Brooklyn and along the Hudson River have been largely abandoned, cargo continues to move swiftly through the major containerization facility in New Jersey.

"We have a seaport system probably superior to that of any other nation in world," Brinson said. But improvements must be made to remain competitive, he said, "and we can't say we will build a capital-intensive facility on the land without the assurance that the federal government will hold up its share."

Ensnared by that very issue, Baltimore wants to deepen the ship channel leading up the Chesapeake Bay from 42 to 50 feet and finally has the necessary permits after years of environmental and court battles. Those plans all assumed that the Corps would dredge the channel at taxpayer expense. No small project, the channel is 150 miles long, and the total cost will be about $400 million.

"The problem," Baltimore port spokesman Donald Klein said, "is that you can't charge a user fee before the channel is built, and you can't build the channel and pay the guy later." Thus the port might have to sell $400 million in bonds, which is a major investment for the Maryland Department of Transportation, owner of the port. The project is on hold.

Meanwhile, the New York Port Authority is finding opportunity in Baltimore's problem. New York can put a coal-loading facility near the entrance to New York harbor and will need to dredge only 12 miles of channel to reach a 60-foot depth. That would cost only $30 million.

The Port Authority does not want to pay for that work, which it can clearly afford, if there is going to be a federal program for dredging new ports. Butif forced to pay, New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch and Port Authority Executive Director Peter C. Goldmark Jr. have said they will go ahead. That is fine with OMB and would give New York a competitive edge over Baltimore, which along with Norfolk dominates in coal exports.

The federal government and port interests have negotiated seriously about the channel-deepening projects, and a 50-50 split between the government and port authority may be accepted for the cost of deepening channels beyond their existing depths.

"One of the things we wanted to do is force more examination of what is happening," a senior OMB official said. "Maybe not every port needs to be 50 feet deep." A recurring concern in Democratic and Republican administrations has been that having the general taxpayer finance all dredging encourages a proliferation of pork-barrel projects of questionable long-term value.

At least 10 ports have plans to go to 50 or more feet in depth, and those taken most seriously are New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, Mobile and New Orleans. Nature has already made Long Beach and the Puget Sound ports on the West Coast that deep.

Assuming a solution on how to pay for deepening ports and harbors, another major problem remains. OMB and the Corps want all maintenance of existing channels to be borne by users, on a port-by-port basis. The giants can afford that even if they do not like it.

But ports such as Charleston, S.C., and Portland, Ore., through which much less cargo moves, argue that they would drive themselves out of business if they must raise channel fees enough to pay the cost of maintenance dredging.

"We've been forced into this situation by the administration trying to change signals on something that had been done for the last 170 years," said W. Don Welch, executive director of the South Carolina Ports Authority. "I'm just not quite ready to volunteer to commit suicide."

A user fee on a port-by-port basis, he said, would force Charleston to charge 38 cents a ton, while Baltimore, with much more cargo and lower per-ton costs, would need to charge only 2 cents a ton.

The small ports have proposed that, in the absence of federal funding for maintenance dredging, fees should be collected nationally and put into a trust fund, from which all ports would draw based on need. Under that arrangement, New York and Seattle would be subsidizing Charleston and Portland, and that does not sell well in the Big Apple.

Said South Carolina's Welch: "I respond this way: Who financed and built the channels at New York? Who financed and built Baltimore? Everybody in the country paid for their channels . . . ." South Atlantic ports, he said, are "in a developing mode, not a mature mode. It isn't fair to cut off whole sections of the country and Balkanize our economy."

Great Lakes ports, devastated by the recession in the old industrial heartland, have an additional worry. They are already paying through tolls for their major capital improvement, the St. Lawrence Seaway.

These ports claim that, if they must also charge a new federal user fee to contribute to the Corps maintenance pool, their already depressed business will drop even further.

But Secretary Lewis said the St. Lawrence Seaway fees "are so small" that ports there are "affected more by the economy and the distance from the ocean than they are by the fees on the Seaway itself . . . .

"The Mississippi people want us to make sure that the seaway supports itself; the St. Lawrence people realize they can't compete with the Mississippi because they don't pay anything . . . . What I don't want to do is increase fees so much on the St. Lawrence Seaway that there's no competition for the Mississippi River, because they're not paying anything . . . .

"The problem is pretty clear; there's a lot more political support for the Mississippi River than there is for the St. Lawrence Seaway because there are a lot more states bordering the Mississippi river than the St. Lawrence . . . ."

Regardless of their local situation, port officials unanimously argue that OMB is so obsessed with the federal budget deficit that any means of reducing general fund expenditures is worthwhile, even if it has negative, long-term, national implications.

Joep Jurgens, counselor for transportation at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, said at a recent luncheon that Rotterdam is dredging its main channel to 72 feet. "We believe," Jurgens said, "that ports and harbors need to be deepened in the United States. We are convinced you lack export capability there."

The battle has reached the point that Congress had to provide money in the latest budget just to pay for the Corps' annual maintenance dredging program, which the administration's budget proposal had assumed would be financed from new user fees.

Barge operators worry that the Corps is cutting back on river channel dredging because of the budget. "I've been around 30 years in this Mississippi River beat," said Jack Lambert, chairman of the board of Twin City Barge in South St. Paul, Minn. " . . . The system is sort of steadily deteriorating because there haven't been a lot of funds for maintenance on the locks and dams , and the maintenance of the channel has been let slide.

"We now defer to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Sierra Club, so we do less dredging. We're fearful at some point that a major flood will create a lot of obstacles."

Many locks and dams have taken on the characteristics of the highway system: they are aging, maintenance costs are climbing and some need rebuilding.

Alex Shwaiko, chief of the Corps' policy office, said only about one-third of the 225 locks and dams are less than 25 years old and another one-third are more than 50. "Some of those over 50 are in dire need of attention," he said.

The Gallipolis lock and dam, about 40 miles above Huntington, W. Va., is 45 years old and includes the last 600-foot lock along the Ohio River; most locks are now 1,200 feet long. At the smaller lock, a long tow, or cluster of barges, must be broken into two sections before it can "lock through." That delays passage considerably.

If anything goes wrong, long queues of tows form on the river. The average delay at Gallipolis in 1967, according to district planning chief Don Herndon, was 25 minutes By 1979, it had become eight hours.

The lock's location, on the West Virginia side of the river, is such that long tows must navigate a bend in the river just before entering or leaving the lock. That makes alignment with the lock difficult, and the yearly average of major accidents is nine, each of which slows traffic further.

The $400-million solution blessed by the Corps includes digging a canal slightly east of the present lock and putting new, longer locks there. That would handle most tows in one move, straighten the channel, reduce accidents and speed passage. The environmental impact statement has been completed with no major objections, according to the Corps.

The feeling of uncertainty expressed by barge operators is understood by John Mikel, of the Corps construction operations division in Washington. "We have recognized that everything is old," he said. "We're probably at a watershed . . . . If I were a shipper, I'd be concerned too."

The locks and dams, he said, "look like the devil." CAPTION: Picture 1, A barge heads out of the Ohio River's Gallipolis Locks, for which the Army Corps of Engineers has ambitious rehabilitation plans. The question is, who will pay the $400 million the project would cost? Photos by Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, Workmen haul material destined for repair work on the Gallipolis Locks on the Ohio River. Picture 3, Giant gears used to pull the gates of thelocks, which barge operators consider to be the leading bottleneck on the heavily used Ohio River system.