There's a basic logic in maintaining the U.S. port system, according to Charles Roberts, executive director of the Port of Oakland.

"If you're going to be involved in world trade, you've got to have ports. If you're going to have ports, you've got to dredge them. We've been dredging since year one."Basic, but not simple.

From the viewpoint of Mr. Roberts, other U.S. port directors and the American Association of Port Authorities, which is the industry's Washington lobbying group, the nation, though dependent on waterborne commerce, has no coherent policy for ensuring that the channels serving ports are dredged and able to accommodate the ships plying world trade routes in the 1990s.

For lack of federal leadership, port modernization is being stymied and the American taxpayer is paying the bill for a gridlock of improvement projects that largely is the result of bureaucratic delay, they said.

They see dredging activity as being subject to piecemeal regulation under various laws that are intended mainly to regulate water quality and and protect wetlands and endangered species.

Citing a count by the Army Corps of Engineers, AAPA said there are more than 30 federal laws and executive orders applicable to dredging and the disposal of dredged material. State and local requirements add an additional layer of review, the association said. Regarding the management of dredged material, there is no "comprehensive, consistent federal approach," it added.

To address these concerns, AAPA has developed a National Dredging Policy. The industry stance has been in the works for most of this year. Its basic contents gained preliminary approval at the association's spring conference. The principles have been fined-tuned over the summer while an implementation strategy also was developed.

The cornerstone of the policy is a recommendation that the Clinton administration issue an executive order directing the Corps of Engineers, the Commerce, Transportation and Interior departments, and the Environmental Protection Agency work together to streamline the regulatory review of dredging projects.

It also recommends the following:

* Federal funding for the construction of dredged material disposal sites, particularly for contaminated sediments that are unsuitable for placement in open ocean waters.

* Encouraging the use of dredged material to create wetlands and to replenish beaches.

* Limiting public funding to clean up nonthreatening pollutants found in sediments from dredging projects.

* Capping with sand and other such techniques for managing the disposal of unharmful dredged material.

* Assigning a high priority to federal research and development of technology to decontaminate dredged material.

* Identifying and fining dumpers of pollutants that contaminate harbors and channel bottoms.

APPA President Eric Stromberg said in a mid-September interview he had presented the policy to various Cabinet departments, the Corps of Engineers, the EPA and to members of Congress. The initial "feedback has been positive"

from executive branch officials, he said.

Individual ports have received "words of encouragement from hill staffers," Mr. Stromberg added.

Some port officials such as Oakland's Mr. Roberts consider dredging to be an issue of such critical importance as to require, possibly, a campaign extending beyond the efforts of the industry's Washington trade association.

Oakland officials cited setbacks encountered on the port's current channel- deepening project as the reason for losing a terminal expansion investment that American President Lines Ltd. was considering. APL said in a new release, Oakland officials reported, that Oakland was "hampered by uncertainty over bay dredging and land availability." APL chose Los Angeles over Oakland for the expansion.

Mr. Roberts, along with Lillian Liburdi, director of the port department of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, called officials from about 16 ports from around the country to a special meeting in Chicago Sept. 17.

Invitees included representatives from ports in Mobile, Cleveland, Corpus Christi, Savannah, Houston, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Tampa, Toledo, Norfolk, Portland, Ore., and the Washington ports of Tacoma and Kalama.

The purpose of the meeting was to share information about dredging projects, discuss common concerns and explore establishing a cooperative strategy for dealing with obstacles to dredging, Mr. Roberts said in a letter to attendees.

A discussion of how the group could complement or augment the port association's efforts to gain support for its dredging policy also was to be on the agenda, according to the letter.

Mr. Roberts linked ports' interests in streamlining dredging regulations with Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review, which is intended to make government more efficient and less costly.

The regulatory agencies are not doing their jobs, he said. The problems ports face on dredging projects primarily are delays attributable to the inability of middle-management bureaucrats to make decisions, he charged.