Kennedy, president of the Waterkeepers Alliance, is visiting Georgia this week for a national meeting of the group's supporters. He is the son of the late New York Sen. Robert Kennedy and the nephew of President John F. Kennedy.
Kennedy said in an interview that environmental concerns do not get enough attention in the conflict over water usage in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, which serve all three states. Florida officials say metro Atlanta uses too much water upstream, leaving too little to support a healthy oyster and other fisheries fed by the Apalachicola River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen in the bay blame low water flows, in part, for reductions in the oyster harvest.
"When Atlanta and the state of Georgia and Alabama and Florida struggle over competing claims to the water flows, we have to also consider the impacts on the aquatic ecosystem, not just for the sake of the oysters and fisheries... but also for the human populations and the giant economic engines" they support, Kennedy said.
Kennedy also said it's easy for people to forget that their water use in Atlanta can have effects in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 300 miles away.
"That's one of the jobs of government, to connect those dots, to say we need to make some restrictions on how we're using this water," Kennedy said. "We need to look beyond our narrow horizons and look at the bigger picture."
The years-long conflict came to a head in 2009 when a federal judge sided with Alabama and Florida, ruling that metro Atlanta had little right to take water from Lake Lanier on the Chattahoochee River. The ruling would have sharply scaled back withdrawals from the metro region's main water source. The decision was later struck down by a federal appeals panel, which ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reevaluate Atlanta's request for more water and revise its plans for running the river system.
Officials from all three states are still in talks meant to resolve the dispute.
Last month, U.S. senators from Alabama and Florida tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation that would have effectively restricted Atlanta's water use from two federal reservoirs, including Lake Lanier. Florida lawmakers cited the struggles of the oyster industry when pushing for the rules, which were not adopted by the Senate.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.