Washington-area paddlers, worried that the region's top whitewater racing stream may be jeopardized by a hydroelectric project, have raised a $15,000 defense fund to save the Savage River.

The paddlers say a planned $2 million power project could threaten recreational use of the river.

The cold, boisterous Savage in far western Maryland is the designated site of the 1989 world whitewater championships, the first such championships to be staged in the United States.

Construction of the hydroelectric facility is not scheduled to begin until 1990, so the international races wouldn't be affected.

But the paddlers say the outcome of their battle could define boaters' rights on other popular rivers currently being eyed for use by hydro developers, including the Youghiogheny in Pennsylvania, the busiest whitewater river in the East.

The Savage developer, John L. Reed of Fort Washington, Md., says he has no wish to interfere with whitewater boating. But the paddlers say they want written assurances and Reed has declined.

The dispute is being played out before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is considering Reed's application. The paddlers say if they don't get the assurances they want through FERC, they'll use their war chest to carry their fight as far as they can, even to Congress.

It's a classic confrontation between recreational and business interests over use of a public resource. Here's the background:

In 1952, a small dam was built on the Savage by the Army Corps of Engineers to control flow on a 5 1/2-mile stretch leading to the Potomac. Since then, as an unexpected side benefit, occasional releases of water from the dam have provided high sport for whitewater enthusiasts in the narrow, rocky, forest-lined gorge.

The best paddling occurs three to six times a year, paddlers said, when the Corps releases water at a thunderous rate of about 1,000 cubic feet per second. In recent years, boaters have been notified in advance of the releases and they have scheduled forays to race or practice in the fast water.

So popular has the racing stretch grown that Maryland's Department of Natural Resources spent $1 million upgrading streamside facilities for the upcoming world championships.

Meanwhile, in January, members of Washington's Canoe Cruisers Association (CCA), the nation's largest paddling club, learned that Reed Hydroelectric Corp. was seeking federal approval for a 3.2-megawatt generator at the dam to produce electricity for sale to public utilities.

CCA members Mac Thornton and Steve Taylor felt the development could imperil recreational use of the river and formed the Savage River Defense Fund.

Taylor, an engineer, said that since the generator can use only 50-300 cubic feet per second of water, releases at the higher rate paddlers need would be water down the drain for the hydroelectric operator.

Taylor said the defense fund wants a promise that Reed Hydroelectric won't try to shape water-release policy for its financial advantage at the expense of boaters. Taylor's feasibility studies indicated the project's profit margins are tight and he foresees financial pressures on Reed to husband water resources for maximum profit.

The defense fund asked Reed to sign a memo pledging not to interfere with the 1988 pre-world championships or 1989 championships; not to reduce opportunities for whitewater sport in general, and not to seek to alter water releases in a way that might harm whitewater recreation.

Reed's attorney, William J. Madden, said the company agreed to the first two requests. But as for future assurances, he said, "They want us to give up our First Amendment right to petition the government for change. We don't know what's going to happen in the distant future. Twenty years from now, whitewater recreation may be just a distant memory."

Madden said Reed Hydroelectric is perfectly happy with current levels of water releases at the Savage and has no intention to seek changes.

And he said Reed assured FERC, Maryland's Department of Natural Resources and the Upper Potomac River Commission that it can live with current water release policies, including releases for whitewater recreation.

But, said defense fund member Mac Thornton, "What people say in order to get approval and what they do after they have it can be two different things. We want something in writing."

So, evidently, do legions of his fellow boaters, who bought more than 4,000 raffle tickets for the fund-raiser last weekend at the REI outdoor equipment store in College Park.

Dozens of top paddlers were on hand at the drawing, including four-time world canoeing champion Jon Lugbill, who said he has been paddling the Savage since 1974 and wants to make sure he can canoe there 15 years from now.

The defense fund set a goal of $12,000, Thornton said, but with donations of $1,000 each from REI and the American Rivers Conservation Council to start with, plus more than $12,000 from the weekend's raffle, it's gone far over the top.

That alone was noteworthy, said one member of the defense fund. "It marks the first time in river conservation history," he said, "that we've had the money we needed ahead of time."