Imagine a job where all you have to do is eat and sleep. Well, for some Zone 7 Water Agency contractors, they get to live out that dream while also doing important safety work at the same time.
However, these aren't your typical workers -- they're goats.
And while they are known for drawing in crowds of families and kids who love admiring them as they eat vegetation from a safe distance, what many might not know is that they are actually doing some serious work to prevent fires in an eco-friendly way.
Known as the "Goat in the Zone" project, Zone 7 first launched the program locally two years ago at a cost of $160,000 annually.
It is run by the agency's maintenance and operations department, which also funds the program through the department's flood maintenance budget, according to Mike Miller, who manages maintenance and construction of the various flood channels for Zone 7 and has been overseeing the goat program ever since he first joined the agency in 2021.
"The program, since I've been involved with it, has been another resource that we've utilized for fire fuel reduction," he told the Weekly. "The program has been incredibly useful and very popular amongst everybody."
What Miller means by fire fuel reduction is what the herd of about 40 to 50 goats call another day of eating whatever they can and want.
That's because the goats are part of the agency's integrated vegetation management plan, which aims to control weeds, grass and shrubs along flood protection channels that, in some areas, also serve as recreational areas for Tri-Valley residents.
These areas -- while beneficial to the communities -- pose high fire risks, which makes the goats' job of vegetation maintenance even more important.
"They'll eat just about anything for fire fuels and vegetation," Miller said.
Apart from eating overgrown vegetation that gets dry in the summer months and is at risk of causing fires or blocking the flow of water in the flood channels during the rainy season, Miller said they also eat invasive species such as blackberries.
He said by consuming these and other invasive species, the goats help prevent those plants from moving downstream and spreading to other parts of the arroyos.
"It's really good that they kind of attack it and are willing to eat so much," Miller said.
The reason the goats are able to eat pretty much whatever they want is because they have been bred and raised to be "the ultimate grazing machine", according to Goats R Us, the contracted company that provides the goats for Zone 7 land this summer.
Goats R Us, which is a family-owned and -operated grazing company based out of Orinda, has been raising herds of goats that are eventually transported to everyone from homeowners and private landowners to public agencies like Zone 7.
The company focuses on mainly raising Angora goats because of their "hardiness and thick mohair, which keeps them comfortable in the chilly Northern California winters", but also house Alpine, Spanish, Boer, Pygmy, La Mancha and Nubian goats for different scopes of work for other projects.
"In addition, we have bred into our stock Alpine and Spanish goats, for extra hardiness and their ability to thrive on a wide variety of feed sources," according to the Goats R Us website. "Our goats are then divided up into herds that are specifically designed to work in a particular job site."
The company also recruits goat herders from places in South America who are sent to the work locations along with a border collie dog to tend and oversee the goats. The goatherds, who live out of trailers or mobile homes while out working with the goats, are specially recruited from South America due to their "outstanding ability to work with livestock", the company says.
But as these local animal celebrities currently eat their way through the different arroyos in the Tri-Valley for the third fire season in a row, new state labor regulations could soon make it more expensive to provide their goat-grazing services.
In 2016, legislation signed into law entitled the herders to overtime pay that boosted their minimum monthly pay from $1,955 in 2019 to $3,730 this year.
These regulations specifically revolve around overtime laws and the fact that companies have historically been allowed to pay goat and sheep herders a monthly minimum salary rather than an hourly minimum wage, because of their round-the-clock schedule.
As Miller outlined, it's not like one could gauge the goat's work because the goats eat at their own schedule.
"That's one of the most common questions I get asked is, 'When are they coming to our neighborhood next or when are they going to be done here?'" Miller said. "It's not like a mower or a contractor, where you can say they'll be done on Tuesday."
But now, according to the California Farm Bureau, agencies like Zone 7 could see an increase in the monthly salary of herders from about $3,730 to $14,000 starting Jan. 1 because of that irregular work schedule.
According to the California Department of Industrial Relations, the average is already set to hit $4,381 in 2025.
But Miller said that everything is already becoming more expensive these days and because the program is already so popular, he doesn't see Zone 7 moving away from the project in the future.
"Our priorities are always going to be fire protection and trying to do the more environmentally sustainable thing as well," said Alexandra Bradley, communications specialist at Zone 7.
Zone 7 General Manager Valerie Pryor added to that sentiment by saying that the agency does acknowledge the possibility of upcoming regulations in January potentially leading to increased costs associated with goat grazing and when the time comes, the agency will have to reassess the program in relation to the agency's budget.
"Despite this, we recognize the numerous benefits that goats bring to vegetation management, watershed protection and fire fuel reduction in our flood channels," Pryor said in a statement to the Weekly. "If these regulations do come into effect, we will evaluate the overall cost-effectiveness of our goat grazing services. Nevertheless, our commitment to effective fire suppression techniques and environmentally sustainable practices remains unchanged."
According to Miller, the agency's contract with Goats R Us ends next year, which is when Zone 7 officials will reassess on whether they want to bring back the program. If they do, they will bid out on another contract either with that company or with another one, depending on the price.
But for now, Miller said that the goats will continue to cover as many areas as they can within this year's vegetation season, which ends in October. He said that they usually try to get the work done earlier but due to the high demand for goats from other agencies, it took the goats a bit longer than anticipated to actually get started in the Tri-Valley.
And while there is that uncertainty in the future, Miller has nothing but praise for the program and hopes it will continue.
"The thorough job that they do; I mean, it's just incredible," Miller said. "All the positive feedback we've had over the last couple of years with this program ... it gets people interested in what we're doing here in the arroyos as far as maintaining the nature of the channel and the maintaining of a safe environment that everybody can enjoy."
According to Bradley, the goats, which are currently working their way through Livermore, should be moving to Pleasanton in approximately three weeks. Their next stop will be along the Arroyo Valle starting at Nevada Street and Bernal Avenue and will be moving their way westward.