THE federal and NSW governments are facing claims their $24 million purchase of the historic Toorale Station near Bourke in 2008 to help the Murray-Darling river system was a waste of money that has harmed the local economy while delivering scant environmental benefit.
Three years after the federal government led the purchase of the 91,000-hectare property to release its irrigated water back to the river system, the dams and irrigation channels are still in place - though their decommissioning was a key part of the environmental plan - the Herald has confirmed.
An ''infrastructure decommissioning plan'' drawn up by engineering consultants Aurecon in 2009 found there were environmental obstacles to scrapping the dams and channels because a new ecology has grown in the 150 years since the station was established. Also, a complete decommissioning would cost $79 million.
Angry locals have told the Herald their economy has been battered without much gain.
''It's very hard to see that there's been any environmental benefit whatsoever from the $23.75 million that was spent,'' Geoff Wise, general manager of Bourke Shire, said. ''But there's been millions and millions of dollars of lost productivity that would have flowed had it remained a viable property.''
He said Toorale Station had provided about 10 per cent of Bourke's business and 4 per cent of the shire rates. ''Overnight, we lost that.''
The property on the confluence of the Darling and Warrego rivers was bought by the NSW government, though the Commonwealth paid the bulk of the purchase price with nearly $20 million and in return got the water rights.
The then water minister Penny Wong said at the time the infrastructure decommissioning plan would be ''implemented as soon as possible''. The Aurecon report in August 2009 advised ''partial decommissioning''.
The federal Environment Department said in a statement to theHerald the purchase had delivered an extra 56 billion litres of water to the environment by releasing water out of the dams. This falls short of the average 20 billion litres a year - peaking at 80 billion in flood years - Senator Wong promised in 2009, despite the heavy rains and flooding of recent years.
In the 2010-11 financial year, 7.6 billion litres were returned to the river system - just 0.01 per cent of the total flow of water through the Darling River at the Louth gauge, downstream.
The Water Minister, Tony Burke, acknowledged decommissioning had ''taken longer than originally expected'' and added ''we're still working through the technical details with NSW as to which is the best pathway''.
He said the water already recovered had helped the Darling River, the Warrego River, the Great Darling Anabranch and the River Murray wetlands.
Even supporters of the purchase are disappointed by the lack of progress. Justin McClure, the owner of Kallara Station, a flood plain grazing property south-west of Bourke on the Darling River, said it had always been the understanding the dams would be removed.
''I'm disappointed that the infrastructure hasn't been decommissioned,'' he said.''I'm disappointed that more water hasn't been returned to the river, although I understand the issues the government is facing.''
Mr McClure said there had been environmental gains downstream and he still believed the purchase had been worth the money. But he added: ''The fact there's no information on what they're actually doing is what upsets me the most … I don't think it's a transparent process.''
The opposition water spokesman, Barnaby Joyce, said the Toorale situation boded ill for Murray-Darling Basin reform.
''When the nation pays for a property that doesn't actually deliver much water into the Darling River and now they are reorganising the nation's food bowl and how we feed ourselves, I get very worried.''