FAIRFIELD — Cows are in Rockville Hills Park at a time of year they usually are not – in a location they are usually not allowed to graze.
That is raising questions from some park users. They wonder why cows are wandering around the ponds on the park’s plateau. The city’s 2002 Rockville Hills plan called for keeping cattle away from the ponds to help the aquatic and wetlands habitat thrive.
“Why would you add this fencing to exclude cattle and suddenly have cattle inside?” park user Les Barclay said Thursday as he stood near the pond called Upper Lake. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Fairfield owns and manages the 633-acre park with trails along Rockville Road. City Landscape Supervisor Kathie Norris said the decision to let cows around the ponds stems from the drought.
“We actually have a fence to keep cattle away from the area,” Norris said. “But this year, we didn’t get the desired result from grazing sheep in the area. We are concerned about the fuel load and the potential for a fire escaping.”
Rockville Hills Park borders subdivisions in Green Valley.
The gates to the fences around the Upper Lake and Lower Lake area were opened about a week ago. Norris said the cows will be allowed to graze the area for a short duration, perhaps a couple of weeks, to reduce vegetation that can fuel fires.
Fairfield usually uses sheep to graze around the ponds because sheep are less intrusive to the environment than cows. But Norris said the sheep rented by the city and used earlier this year are off somewhere else on another fuel-controlling job.
“In the meantime, I don’t think it’s prudent to wait,” she said.
Dan Tilley is 80 years old and has lived next to Rockville Hills Park property since 1964. He helped get a 1982 Fairfield ballot initiative passed to stop city plans to build an 18-hole golf course at the park, along with a restaurant, conference center, giant water slide and tram.
He presented a petition to the city in 2002 with 1,000 signatures to keep cattle out of the park, though city officials and the City Council decided cattle were needed to eat grass that could fuel wildfires.
Tilley doesn’t like the results he sees from having the cows near the ponds. He pointed Thursday to a blue heron standing in Upper Lake. A white egret stood on the other side of the pond, next to a group of 17 cows.
“There are bulrushes up there,” Tilley said. “They’re full of nesting birds. They (cows) are eating the bulrushes right down to the water.”
Tilley said the cows don’t eat the dry grass that is the worst fire danger. He doesn’t see that allowing the cows near the pond is having the desired results.
Cows foul the water and area with manure, Tilley and Barclay said.
“People step in it and dogs roll in it,” Tilley said.
Norris said that, if the cattle do more harm than good, the city will have to wait until the sheep can come back.
“We’re in a delicate situation, because we have to balance the two,” Norris said.
Cattle generally graze in the park from January to late May. Norris said the late rains this year changed the situation, with the cattle grazer used by the city selling off his herd before the rains, not having enough cattle after the rains came and having to buy as much cattle as he could.
Clearly, the cattle issue frustrates Tilley.
“This is one of the poorest-managed parks in the Bay Area,” he said.
But a family passing by perked him up. Reaching Upper Lake on this warm day meant the man, woman and several children had hiked more than a mile along some steep terrain.
“It makes me so happy to see families here enjoying it,” Tilley said. “It just makes me feel so happy to see how utilized the park is.”
Upper Lake looks like a pond on its way to becoming a puddle, a fraction of its usual size. Tilley estimates the pond is 30 percent full and said it will probably dry up in coming months, as it did last year.
That’s yet another sign of the three-year drought.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.