A D.C. City Council committee confirmed yesterday what everyday experience has already taught the countless people who have cooled their feet in Rock Creek in summer or who have put their hands into the Potomac River or the Tidal Basin -- most District waterways are safe to touch.
But, the panel warned, swimming in or drinking from the Potomac or other District of Columbia waters is still considered dangerous.
Reacting in part to the improved water quality of the Potomac, the council's Transportation and Environmental Affairs committee approved a bill that could be the first step in legalizing some currently prohibited water activities such as wading.
Committee staff director Anne Snodgrass said the bill, which also sets overall water pollution standards for the city's waterways, simply defines acceptable water safety levels and says what uses could be permitted.
"What the bill is saying is that the water quality is meeting the standards set for wading. It does not mean you are allowed to wade," Snodgrass told the panel. The bill must still be approved by the full council.
Present city law permits only boating and fishing in city rivers and streams and bans swimming, wading and all forms of human contact with the waters.
James R. Collier, an official of the city's Department of Environmental Services who spoke in favor of the bill at yesterday's hearing, said in an interview that water quality has improved to the point where it is no longer necessary to ban all forms of human contact. Collier said his department is studying possible locations that would be safe for wading and urged that such activity not begin until the locations have been approved by the city.
Collier, chief of the department's Water Hygiene Division, said marked improvement in the Potomac's water quality was a major factor in his decision to seek relaxation of the ban on all forms of human contact.
Collier said that certain parts of the Potomac could be ready for swimming in the next three to 10 years, and the city is currently studing that possibility further.
The committee's bill is the city's attempt to comply with federal law requiring periodic review of water-quality standards.
In 1979, the last time the city adopted such standards, a technical dispute over language contained in the standards resulted in the federal Environmental Protection Agency's refusing to approve them, Snodgrass said. She said EPA officials have given preliminary approval to the standards included in the current bill.