TO THE TOURIST or the otherwise uniformed who may venture by the Potomac riverside between Chain Bridge and just above Great Falls, the latest talk of a federal crackdown on anyone caught swimming there may seem outlandishly tough. It isn't, believe us -- or at least believe the friends and relatives of excellent swimmers who have drowned in these waters year after year, in terrifying numbers. The word has got to spread that this is a deceptive, deadly stretch -- not a harmless place to play on the rocks, wade in or splash around. And if fat fines and possible jail terms will make this a matter of common knowledge to more people around these sites, then go ahead and get tough.

Specifically, U.S. Attorney Elsie L. Munsell has asked the eight active U.S. District Court judges in the Eastern District of Virginia for a court order that would force anyone arrested entering the Potomac from park land to appear in court. As it stands, the maximum penalty for this offense is a $500 fine and six months in jail, but it has been treated much like a parking violation; people who choose not to contest the charge may pay a $25 fine by mail.

J. Frederick Motz, the U.S. attorney for Maryland, has said he is filing a similar request that would affect those who enter the river from the Maryland side. These proposed crackdowns have been supported by National Park Service officials, who have been trying for years to keep people out of the water and who have posted signs, patrolled and hollered so often to no avail.

Last year, at least 14 people drowned in this 11- mile stretch. Already this year -- it's only May -- there have been five reported deaths. Better to haul the next swimmers into court right away than to have to drag the river for them later.