John Shine, the academy’s president, welcomed Labor’s approach, and said work would begin immediately, including consulting other academies.
“The fish kill is a multifactorial issue, and the multidisciplinary panel of experts the Academy of Science will assemble will be knowledgeable across a range of matters,” Professor Shine said.
“A commitment to using science from independent expert sources to inform policy decisions is crucial for effective decision making in Australia.”
In his letter to the academy, obtained by the Herald, Mr Shorten said. the Murray-Darling was “a critically important river system in Australia, sustaining life for countless native plant and animal species, as well as supporting our important agricultural industries”.
“If we are to be responsible custodians of our country, we must restore the rivers to health, and we cannot do this without drawing on scientific experts,” he said, adding that he would make the findings public.
While the fish kills will be one focus of the report, Mr Shorten also asked the academy to study “whether water diversions and/or water management practices in the Murray-Darling system have caused or exacerbated the scale of this disaster”.
Fish are continuing to die in patches of the Menindee weir pool and fishery authorities are bracing for more amid on-going heat and lack of river flows there and elsewhere in the river system.
Mr Shorten also asked for the study to examine the role chemical and fertiliser use may have contributed to the event, and what immediate steps could be taken to improve rivers’ health and management “within the Basin Plan framework”.
The Herald sought comment from David Littleproud, the federal Water Minister.
On the national agenda
Labor’s move was a “sensible one” that would reduce prospects of “politicians seeking to grab attention” and instead put independent science in the spotlight, said Stephen Dovers, an emeritus professor from the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society.
Still, debate over the water allocations over the Murray-Darling Basin had gone on for decades, and “three weeks won’t be enough to provide a magic bullet” to resolve its woes, Professor Dovers said.
Maryanne Slattery, a senior water researcher at The Australia Institute who has compiled her own review of the fish kill causes, also welcomed the academy study.
“Too often the health of our greatest waterway has been seen as only a regional or agricultural issue but now it is firmly on the national agenda,” Ms Slattery said.
Still, she noted that there had been lots of basin research and what had been lacking ws the “political and administrative will to act on the science and actually get more water in the rivers”.
Informing future decisions
Tony Burke, Labor’s water spokesman, reiterated Labor’s support for controversial sustainable diversion limits projects – including one that would reduce the role of Menindee Lakes as a water storage – and the plan to reduce environmental water savings in the northern basin by 70 billion litres.
“Labor’s support for the SDL figures and the Northern review was because the recommendations came from the Basin authority and the future of the Basin depends on an independent authority,” Mr Burke said.
“Right now the urgent task is for the scientific work to be done,” he said. “It’s for the experts to do that work and whatever it finds will certainly inform future decisions of the Basin authority.”
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.