Clare Valley Racing Club is drowning under the pressure of a low water allocation and rising water costs, which its committee fears could spell the end of racing in the Valley.
Unless thrown a lifeline, the club said it may be left with little choice but to shut the gates and end its 124 year history.
The club said part of the issue is the race track zoning as a vineyard, despite having no vineyards on its grounds and having been established well before any neighbouring vineyards.
Watered by bore water – its main bore divined by late club member Effie Williams in 1981 – the vineyard zoning provides the club with a water allocation of just 19, 950 kilolitres per year and is unable to purchase water from neighbouring properties due to regulations.
To maintain track standards to Thoroughbred Racing SA safety standards, the club is continuously using more water than it has been allocated and copping the fine – the last one was $13,000 on top of the club’s water bill.
Coupled with skyrocketing water prices, club secretary Tanya Bertelsmeier said she fears what the next fine will be when it arrives in July, let alone the fine print which could see the club forced to close.
“SA Water has warned us now that if we keep going over our allocation it will go to court and they will suspend our water licence, which is a real concern,” she said.
Compared with other race tracks such as Oakbank, zoned as ‘sport and recreation’, Clare’s race track has access to significantly less water.
“Our allocation is 19,950kl, Oakbank for example has 150,000kl and they host the same number of races – three each year – and are in a wetter area,” Mrs Bertelsmeier said.
“We hold races from November to April, we don’t water over the winter …. July is when our next bill will come in and I’m guessing it will be massive given the price of water and the dry season we’ve had.
“We’ve been shouldering the cost over the past six or seven years, but now the prices are just out of control.
“The bottom line is, we need another 20,000kl, which still isn’t a lot compared with Oakbank.”
Racing club grounds person, David Meaney, said without water available to them locally, the only other option was to purchase water from outside the district.
“The answer is to buy water but if we can’t buy from this area, which would be cheaper, we have to buy an allocation from the River Murray which is pretty expensive,” he said.
Mrs Bertelsmeier said meetings with Clare and Gilbert Valleys Council and local member Geoff Brock had so far proved fruitless in finding an answer to increasing the club’s water allocation to avoid the excessive usage fines.
“It’s like hitting your head against a brick wall,” she said.
“Council told us it is a zoning issue and it’s out of their hands. Geoff Brock came here and appeared helpful and proactive but has not been able to help us find any answers.”
Minister for Environment and Water, David Speirs MP told the Plains Producer zoning was not the issue, instead it was an increase in the area of turf irrigated at the race course.
“When the Clare Valley was prescribed as a water resources area in 1999, water licence allocations were issued to existing water users based on the water use practices that occurred in the period 1992 to 1999 including the allocation for the Clare Valley Racing Club,” Minister Speirs said.
“The zoning has no bearing on water allocations, as the allocations were determined by the area of turf being irrigated.
“The issue is the racing club has increased the area being irrigated from 2007 onwards. However because the prescribed water resources for the Clare Valley Prescribed Water Resources Area are fully allocated, there is no further water available for allocation.
“The club has been advised it may wish to consider purchasing a water allocation from another existing licence holder. The club has also been advised to discuss the matter with the Northern and Yorke Natural Resources Management Board which is considering a review of the region’s water allocation plan.”
However, further questioning to the Minister’s office on this increase in the area being watered – which was denied by the racing club, who said they are not watering a larger area, but simply asking for a larger water allocation – found the increase in area came about simply from the method of calculation.
Further advice from the Minister’s office advised the Plains Producer the Racing Club was located in a “high intensity water use area where trade is difficult” due to the presence of protection zones around environmental assets and nearby wells (ie: protecting the rights of other users) that limit trade.
The Minister’s office said, “given this, alternate options have been suggested for the Racing Club to explore, such as purchasing a water allocation from outside of the zone from an existing licence holder and delivering the water to the racecourse via a pipeline (or trucking in) and/or exploring water efficiency measures”.
“If there are neighbouring properties wishing to trade allocation, DEW invites the Racing Club to discuss this further with the department to determine if there is any water trade potential”, a spokesperson from the Minister’s office said.
Mrs Bertelsmeier said her enquiries to the NRM and Department of Water and Environment had so far proved fruitless.
With vineyards being removed from neighbouring properties around the race course, Mrs Bertelsmeier also said less water must be being drawn from the water table, therefore potentially freeing up water for others to purchase.
“I have asked the senior assessment and compliance officer at the Department of Environment and Water how often they monitor the water usage and levels, his reply was that he couldn’t tell me,” Mrs Bertelsmeier said.
“I explained there are vineyards all around us who have pulled out their vines and couldn’t possibly be using all their water now.
“Again, it was like hitting my head against a brick wall and he said I can try and apply for a new water allocation through the NRM officer Northern and Yorke – who has so far not returned my calls – but it would need to go through court and likely be unsuccessful.”
One thing that is clear, is the impact the loss of the Clare Valley Racing Club would have on the region.
“It’s not just about racing, but it’s about the jobs and revenue it creates,” Mrs Bertelsmeier said.
“There are footy clubs from surrounding areas, Scouts, food vendors and local wine sales that all benefit from our events, not to mention the 10,000 people we bring into the Clare Valley over 12 months who book accommodation and eat at our pubs and shop at our local businesses.”