To most Washingtonians the Anacostia River is a muddy gutter. To others, it's a river of dreams.

Dark and sluggish and choked with silt, its mud flats littered with old tires and beer cans, it nonetheless sustains both herons and hopes, warblers and wishes and, among the willows and sycamores of its wooded banks, the illusion of wildness resilient despite the hand of man.

From its tidal head at Bladensburg, where sailing ships once loaded hogsheads of tobacco at Maryland's most flourishing seaport, to the Washington Navy Yard, where battleship guns were made, "it seems like just about everything about the Anacostia's been forgotten," says Al Spinks of Anacostia Marina.

But visions, public and private, rise and fall with the Anacostia's tides and fortunes. Scattered among more than a dozen local, state and federal agencies who govern the eight miles of the river and its 175-square-mile watershed are plans to cleanse its waters, renew its plant life and revitalize its waterfront with everything from floating restaurants to ferris wheels. The first was drawn up by Pierre Charles L'Enfant when he designed the city of Washington.

The harbor of the Anacostia, L'Enfant wrote, "is in every respect to be preferred to that of the Potomac, being less impeded with ice and never so swelled by freshets. The channel is deeper and will admit any vessel that may pass over the shallows . . . vessels may be moored to wharves, while they must remain half mile from the bank of the Potomac."

Even before L'Enfant, the Nacotchtank or Anacostine Indians saw in the river the ideal site for a major trading center, which they established near its mouth.

But the Anacostia's deep harbor was doomed. As trees fell for tobacco fields in a watershed that stretches now from Greenbelt to Olney, seasonal rains washed more and more land down the Northeast and Northwest branch headwaters to the river below. Shoaling became a problem as early as 1762, and after the schooner Rover left Bladensburg in 1843, seagoing ships above Washington became just a memory.

Siltation since has been the governing reality of the Anacostia, clogging its channel, filling its marshes and slowing the wash of its tidal flow. Today, when a drop of water takes 44 days to travel eight miles from Bladensburg to the Potomac, the silt has smothered everything but hope.

Hope, though, does flourish. Downstream, between Buzzard Point and the newly tidied docks of the Washington Navy Yard, task forces of public and private planners have hopes for a glitzy "Capital Gateway" waterfront development to rival Baltimore's Harborplace.

Upstream, where the Anacostia narrows to the width of a good-sized creek and mallards ply between its willow-shaded shoreline retaining walls, Horace Wester hopes to bring back the river's vanished wetlands. Wester, a plant pathologist who retired two years ago from the National Park Service, has pictures taken in 1919 showing acres of wild rice growing in the Anacostia below the present site of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium. Today the rice is gone, along with 20 other species of aquatic plants formerly common on the river.

Wester believes a major cause was chlorine discharged in cooling water from Pepco's Buzzard Point and Benning Road power plants--discharges Pepco says have been largely eliminated in recent years.

Wester says his experimental plantings along the river over the past 10 years have proven the aquatic plants can grow again, if protected from the river's still-abundant ducks and muskrats.

"We've so unbalanced the ecology in this river over the years, that the animals will just swarm on any young tender plant," Wester said. "We're overwhelmed with muskrats, and it's going to take a good while to get a stand of plants large enough to feed the animals and reproduce as well."

Wester believes it can be done, and volunteers time in his retirement to continue his studies. But a Park Service spokesman said no one will be hired to replace Wester due to budget cuts.

"We've got a lot of jobs to do," one planning officer said, apologetically. "It's a matter of where and how we can best spend limited funds."

In the halycon 1960s, when federal budgets were less limited, the Park Service commissioned land use plans for the 1,375 acres of flood plain land flanking the river within the District.

The resulting proposals envisioned converting the Kingman Lake offshoot of the Anacostia below RFK Stadium into a 100-acre public swimming area, adjacent to a 300-acre riverbank amusement park patterned after Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens.

A further proposal, updated in October 1981, suggests linking the National Arboretum via a small ferry with the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a wonderland of lily ponds east of the river started a century ago by a retired Civil War veteran named W.B. Shaw.

Such plans remain long range, but adjacent evidence shows the Anacostia's history, unlike its geography, hasn't been all downhill. Some 200 acres of jogging trails and rugby fields just south of the lily ponds stand atop the site of the former Kenilworth dump, which for nearly 30 years burned continually as Washington's single greatest source of air pollution. The dump was closed and covered after a child playing in it was burned to death in 1968. Today Kenilworth dump is Kenilworth Park.

Upstream from the park on the western shore, Tony McRae, 23, angles for channel catfish and dreams of home.

McRae, a muscular free-lance maintenance man ("unemployed, you know, but I'm getting by"), fishes the Anacostia two or three times a week when time and weather permit. He baits his hook with doughballs made from his personal recipe employing flour, soft cheese, hamburger and salt and pepper. So far this day he's bagged two cats, the largest about three pounds. But it's not the fish that draws him, he says. It's the fishing.

"I been fishing since I was 3 or 4," he says softly. "In Florida, down by Lake Okeechobee. It was a family thing, you know. The whole family. We made a day of it . . . . Bass and speckled perch."

The Anacostia is no Okeechobee: even carp and catfish have a hard time here. Besides the 114,000 tons of silt it carries every year, excessive nutrients and sewage system overflows combine to rob the river of even minimal levels of oxygen.

Biologists say a healthy river normally contains at least 6 parts per million of dissolved oxygen. Game fish like largemouth bass require average daily levels of at least 5 parts per million, a level biologists say has been largely achieved in the Potomac River through Washington, even near the outfall from the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant.

"But on a good day in the Anacostia," says consulting engineer Greg Welter, "we start at about 3."

Welter helped prepare a 216-page report for the District on ways to cut sewage discharges into the Anacostia from the city's combined storm and sanitary sewer system.

The report recommended a $70 million program, including construction of three end-of-pipe "swirl treatment facilities" to effectively treat storm runoff.

Welter estimates the program, if enacted, would immediately improve the oxygen level of the Anacostia by 70 percent.

"That river will never be a sparkling stream," Welter says. "It's a little river in a big watershed, with a flow level less than a hundredth that of the Potomac. But what we're proposing can make a substantial difference."

Hopes like Welter's lie with the planners and budget makers who see in the river the new face of Washington. Others lie beached in pieces at Anacostia Marina.

"You think this is junk?" says marina owner Tommy Long, amid a three-acre welter of rotting cabin cruisers, rusting engine parts and stacks of salvaged mahogany trim. "Each one of these is somebody's dream. They come in here with some wreck they got cheap somewhere and they're gonna fix it up. I rent 'em the space and some stick right with it. But most go about two years and get disgusted.

"Maybe they got marriage problems or they got riffed and can't afford the materials. Most have no idea what they're getting into when they start rebuilding a boat.

"They strip everything off and then one day you can't find them. And all I got for my trouble is another wrecked dream to get rid of. I tell you, it makes you bitter."

But other river dreams bloom. Like those of Lou Ann Hill, 21. One recent day she was stretched out beneath the sun on the carpeted deck of a houseboat named "Aquaholic" which tugs at the piers of the Bladensburg Marina.

Nearby a tiny dredge snorted noisily at the never-ending task of deepening the steadily silting boat slips. A hundred yards upstream the Anacostia will scarcely float a boat.

Hill, however, was mentally downstream and away. "On a cruise ship," she said.

Her present reality is a home with her parents in Hyattsville and a well-paid secretarial post at the World Bank and "I guess I'm lucky to have any kind of job these days. But what can I say? I just don't want to be a nine-to-fiver all my life."

The houseboat, she said, belongs to a friend of a friend who lets her come in her high-thigh swimsuit to deepen her already impressive tan. "I'm a sun freak and a water freak," she said. On the river she feels "a long way away.

"But I really want to get out of here and travel, you know? See the world? That's my dream. I mean, if I don't do it when I'm 21, when will I ever do it?"

Maureen Burnell might persuade her there's always time. Across the marina the 60-year-old woman is quietly building a 53 1/2-foot topsail schooner she intends to sail next year to Indonesia.

The schooner's blue ferro-cement hull is already the largest object on Bladensburg's tiny waterfront. It needs 6 1/2 feet to float and the Anacostia channel nearby is scarcely four, but no matter.

"We got it up here and we'll get it out," she says. "When we needed it, the Lord sent a tide."

Burnell has already torn apart, rebuilt and installed the diesel engine herself as well as installing the diesel generators, the hydraulic steering system, and a water purification system that allows her to drink the Anacostia without harm.

She's also done all the wiring and carpentry on her boat, "but don't make a big thing of it. God gives different people different talents. I'm good with my hands."

A native of Westchester County, N.Y., who worked as an engineer for years in California, Burnell first went to Indonesia in 1971 to help a missionary friend who had lost his boat in a hurricane. She stayed two years.

She had never done much sailing but the trip involved finding a new boat for him in Singapore and sailing it 2,000 miles back to the Maluka islands south of Java "where all the rebels are."

Then, three years ago Burnell was working with a church group in Minneapolis when she learned of some missionaries in the Marshall Islands who lost their boat in a hurricane and "need a new one in the worst sort of way."

Grace Fellowship in Fairfax found and gave her the schooner hull--somebody's unfinished hand-tooled dream abandoned in Tommy Long's boat yard. Last December she had it horsed and hauled up the Anacostia to Bladensburg, scraping through drawbridges, bumping on mud flats and waiting out tides.

There she has lived and worked on the boat, trading her engineering skills for occasional help from a nearby boat dealership "where they don't know much about single and dual phase wiring." Much of the equipment for the schooner has been donated by strangers moved to learn of her mission.

Much work remains before the last schooner sails from the old tobacco port of Bladensburg. The vessel still lacks masts, sails and rigging plus some interior finishing and the spars, cordage and deck hardware of an ocean-bound vessel.

"I don't have the money for it, of course," she says. And there's that matter of the Anacostia itself. Is her dream (or any other, for that matter) too big for that muddy little river?

Burnell shrugs. "The Lord has provided so far, and He doesn't back losers," she says. "He'll finish the job."