Situated south of Highway 6 and west of the Iowa River is approximately 30 acres of Iowa City-owned land that is unknown to most residents. Once labeled a park by the City of Iowa City’s Park and Recreation Department and City Council, this land is inaccessible to residents. The city calls this place Mesquakie Park, and if one were able to visit, they would find the Iowa City Transportation Services Department’s staging area, as well as the visible characteristics of a nature preserve: mature trees with tall grasses, gentle topography with small wetland areas and a stream.
But there is something a little unusual about Mesquakie Park: Right below a thin layer of topsoil are the remains of a former dump.
Tribal land to landfill
Like other cities across the country, as Iowa City grew in the 20th century, it had to confront the challenges of increasing amounts of waste. In the city limits, the preferred spots for waste disposal were low-lying, undeveloped and undervalued wetlands on the west side of the Iowa River. As sites filled to capacity, new sites, further outside of town, were identified and opened for trash collection.
The first dump of record was nestled between Highway 6 and Highway 1. According to Roger A. Gerhardt’s 1972, University of Iowa, M.A. Thesis in Hydrogeology, that dump closed in 1946. A second dump (the City Garage Landfill), situated under the present-day Iowa City Transportation Services Building, filled to capacity and was closed in 1964. That same year, the city purchased the current site of Mesquakie Park and made it the city’s third, officially operated municipal landfill site. Gerhardt’s thesis claims that the lot, which was privately held prior to the City’s procurement, was used as an open burning dump for an unknown amount of time.
This site, roughly 64 acres, was given the name South Landfill and was situated south of the Old River Road (now on McCollister Boulevard). The City of Iowa City, the University of Iowa and several surrounding smaller communities were all allowed to dump their refuse there.
At a glance, it’s difficult to see just how much refuse was interred there over time: The entire dump encompassed approximately 30 acres of the 64-acre site. Long trenches roughly 10-feet deep, at variable length, running north to south, were filled with garbage and allowed to pile up, resulting in refuse stacked 16-to-18 feet deep, according to Gerhardt.
In the ‘60s, the rules and regulations surrounding dumps were quite different than they are today, and while city officials referred to South Landfill as a landfill, it was in fact a dump due to the fact that the site wasn’t lined, compacted, capped, managed or monitored. By contrast, our contemporary landfills operate under strict guidelines, including groundwater monitoring, hazardous materials control, leachate capture and much more, all overseen by both the state and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) branches.
In 1989, EPA monitoring wells found elevated concentrations of iron, chromium, arsenic, copper, lead, magnesium and barium leaching from buried refuse at the South Landfill, now known as Mesquakie Park.
While environmental oversight of dumps at this time was nonexistent, the Johnson County Regional Planning Commission requested data for materials deposited at the South Landfill during one week in April of 1971. Documents held at the City of Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department suggest that this was likely in preparation for the acquisition of lands for Iowa City’s current landfill. The data is vague at best, but items that today would require special disposal so as not to pose danger to human or environmental health, in the ‘60s and ‘70s were permissible to dump without precaution: leftover paints, motor oil, drain cleaner, batteries and lawn fertilizer.
In late 1971, as the dump neared full capacity, the city began to envision the eventual retirement of the South Landfill. The old city dump, used prior to the South Landfill, remained undeveloped. With two open parcels of appreciable size already owned by the city but ineligible for building, the Parks and Recreation Commission began drawing up designs for a mile-long riverbank park. A Press-Citizen editorial dated June 22, 1971 supported the preliminary plan, calling it a “promising approach toward a better use of existing resources,” as well as an opportunity for parking, additional high-valued common spaces near water and the possibility that the park would “[add] to the general attractiveness” of the city. Planning for the mile-long “Riverbank Park” continued apace, and as notes from the city council meeting for June 6, 1972 outline, several months before the dump would actually close, the city council approved the names Sturgis Ferry for the City Garage Landfill and Mesquakie Park for the South Landfill.
Dumps to destinations
What to do with closed dumps was, and remains, a perplexing question. The conversion of dumps and landfills to parks was an established practice by the time the Iowa City Parks and Recreation and City Council began considering that option for South Landfill. According to the Trust for Public Land (TPL), an historic example of dump to destination dates back to at least 1916, when the City of Seattle transformed its Rainier Dump into the Rainier Playfield. A more contemporary and well-known example of landfill conversion can be found in the ongoing transformation of the 2,200 acre Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island in New York. But not all landfills are created equal, and they come with a host of concerns such as toxicity, subsidence and liability, not to mention cost. Additionally, the Center for City Park Excellence, a research branch of TPL, gives a rough cost estimate for landfill-to-park conversions of around $300,000 per acre.
Before it was a dump, before the U.S. government partitioned the Iowa River Valley into lots for sale, the region where Mesquakie Park sits belonged to the Meskwaki and Sauk Tribes. Their territory encompassed a significant portion of the Upper Mississippi River region, including parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa. It is reasonable to assume, though not officially known, that this is the reason why councilman Loren Hickerson offered the name Mesquakie for the South Landfill. “Mesquakie,” the spelling used by the City of Iowa City, is a spelling variation of “Meskwaki,” the spelling used by the tribe, which was pushed out of the area in the 1800s, and eventually relocated to Tama, Iowa where nearly 1,400 enrolled tribal members live today.
In 1971, there were obstacles to transforming the South Landfill into its new namesake Mesquakie Park, but they were surmountable. Documents held at the City of Iowa City’s Park and Recreation department detail the required actions: The city needed to pass an ordinance allowing river access, purchase an additional 13-acre parcel and allocate enough discretionary funds for the parks and recreation department to level the soil and seed it with grass. The city files state that the entire budget request for the 1972 fiscal year for the parks department was $204,400.
The first major setback that the dump-to-park conversion faced was an injunction against the city in 1974. According to the legal proceedings on file with the city, Baculis’ Mobile Home Park—located across the street from Mesquakie Park—sued the city for its continued use of the closed dump, and claimed that officials were depositing “sludge” in the area. Then, for reasons unclear, discussion over the park largely disappeared until 1985.
In the intervening years, across the nation, there was an awakening of urban environmental consciousness, as well as a variety of changes in environmental regulations resulting from the establishment of the EPA in December 1970.
By May 1985, when Iowa City City Manager Neal Berkin asked about the status of Mesquakie Park, the parameters of the conversation had changed. Dump-to-park conversion had become a much riskier and more costly venture. The city would be required to create an appropriate earthen seal (the layer of dirt that sits atop the dump would have to be three feet deep, compared to the once-acceptable one foot or less soil depth) and drainage, which, in keeping with new regulations, would require 222,500 cubic yards of fill material, monitoring wells and much more, all at a cost of $1,113,000, according to a city memo on file with the Iowa City Parks and Recreation Department.
In late 1988 and early 1989, the EPA Superfund Branch conducted an assessment of the River Street Landfill (their name for the South Landfill) and the City Garage Landfill. The monitoring wells at the South Landfill indicated chromium and lead at levels exceeding drinking water standards, and iron and manganese exceeding Secondary Drinking Water Standards, which measure for aesthetics—taste, smell and appearance. Additionally, heavy metals arsenic, barium, chromium, copper, iron, lead and manganese were all found to be leaching from the buried refuse. According to the EPA assessment, children from the neighboring mobile home park were known to play on the dump.
Despite the potential risks to both human and environmental health, the EPA concluded that the levels of heavy metals leaching from the South Landfill were not high enough to merit Superfund status, and instead, the site was left to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources for monitoring and management. It’s important to note that this decision was based on “permissible levels” set back in 1985. If the site were to be tested by today’s standards, the EPA’s assessment might look very different.
In the meantime, the land still belonged to the city. Iowa City Parks and Recreation Superintendent Mike Moran chuckled during a recent interview, “Yeah, they always give us the land they don’t want. They say, here, let Parks and Rec have it.”
In fall 1995, the Parks and Recreation Commission was trying to think of what to do with the space. A bus, filled with commissioners, city administrators and perhaps some councilmen, parked at the gates of Mesquakie Park. According to city documents, they brainstormed aloud about scenarios, including wetlands and nature viewing platforms. After some discussion about the feasibility of making the area into a wetland, including details about the presence of refuse near the surface, the idea of the natural area was abandoned. By the end of the day, there was a unanimous vote to turn the lands over to Public Works: The group felt that it would be too costly to convert the site into a park, and that Public Works could make better use of the space. According to the city attorney reviewing the transfer, a rededication of the park to other city uses could invite litigation. For the time being, the commission would have to settle with taking the park off its parks brochure. The area eventually became the transportation department’s staging area, which is what it is used for to this day. The site has never been officially renamed.
Legacy of our waste
When I arrived at Mesquakie Park, where Landfill Superintendent Dave Elias agreed to give me a tour, dump truck operators were depositing large amounts of sand. They had gathered the materials after last spring’s floods in City Park, located further upstream on the Iowa River.
The fact that this site contains a former dump inherited from a previous time, a period of different methods and knowledge of waste disposal, is pointed out to me every time I speak to someone from the city. Several city administrators have told me some version of “well, that site predates me” or “that site was way before my time.” Elias has worked for the city for 25 years, and as we begin talking about Mesquakie Park, he laughs and says, “this site was before even I was here.”
Well into his second decade of service to Iowa City, this longevity gives him some perspective on the practice of waste management and how it has changed over time. A steady evolution of regulations and requirements means that even Iowa City’s current landfill has areas that are antiquated in comparison to today’s technology and management. And each closed landfill, including Mesquakie Park, stands as a time capsule, marked by the best practices of that time.
“One option is to let sleeping dogs lie. And that’s basically what’s going on here.”
— Dave Elias
In my efforts to find data on Mesquakie Park, to locate numbers detailing the monitoring and ongoing management of it, I have found very little information. When I explain this to Elias, he quickly identifies the reason: There is no data. No monitoring was done at the site. With the exception of the EPA assessment, this site is closed.
He says, matter-of-factly, “As far as the EPA is concerned, they’re happy as it is.” Old dumps aren’t particular to Iowa City. All across the United States, inherited sites such as Mesquakie Park, and some much worse, are slipping out of common memory.
“Generally speaking,” Elias begins and then pauses. “Generally speaking, we as a society, not just Iowa City, but as a society—one option is to let sleeping dogs lie. And that’s basically what’s going on here.”
Nina Koger, Environmental Engineer at the Land Quality Bureau within the Iowa DNR, says the granting of landfill permits didn’t begin until the ’70s, and dumps that predate this process aren’t typically monitored due to cost, unless there is an obvious problem such as leachate seeps or distressed vegetation due to methane gas migration.
As long as dumps remain covered and are no longer being used, then they’ll often remain that way, she added. As far as what’s in the dump at Mesquakie Park, Koger says we just don’t know for certain. Monitoring costs money, she says, and unless there is growing concern, dumps will typically lay dormant and unchecked unless problems arise.
In 2013, Mike Moran, Parks and Recreation Superintendent, seemed unconvinced that anything would happen to the site in the near future. Talking with him again this March, however, brought about a different conversation. Development pressures in south Iowa City, he predicts, will cause city administrators to take a second look at the site within the decade. While it is likely a prime candidate for brownfields funding, a form of EPA grants and funding for the cleanup of sites such as Mesquakie Park, there are still impediments to development.
Admittedly though, how this site will be remembered or forgotten, and to whose benefit or detriment, is an important thing to consider. The name and location of the site recalls us to the fact that the Meskwaki did not want to leave this region, that our town is built on what had been their land and that they continue to live in Iowa. Jonathan Lantz Buffalo, a Meskwaki and Tribal Historian, said in an interview, “If the park is a park, then the Mesquakie name can stay but that if it is a transportation staging area, then that’s what the City should call it.”
Reacquainting ourselves with Mesquakie Park also ties us to the future. The fact that the site was a dump and that materials deposited there will persist beyond the average human time frame not only illuminates the history and continued advancement of waste management, but serves as a stark reminder of our contemporary consumption practices. We are currently creating waste at an unprecedented rate.
“We’ve been doing this,” Elias says as he points out at the landfill, “for a long time, and we easily forget about it. We’re interested in asking, ‘Where do we go from here?’ ‘What can we do that is different from what we have always done?’” Mesquakie Park is an old dump that may one day become something else, but our relationship with waste has remained largely the same. Brooke Butler, City of Iowa City Recycling Clerk, says, “At this point, as far as things have come, we’re still throwing garbage in a hole in the ground. That’s something that we need to stop doing. Something needs to change.”
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 175