By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
100,000 FLUSHESAs he does almost every morning, Corky went for a run along Aliso Beach on Jan. 7, 1997. After working up a sweat, he dove into the ocean for a swim several hundred yards north of where the mouth of Aliso Creek pours into Laguna Beach's emerald waters.
"I jumped in, and it was pretty damn cold," Corky recalls. "So I ran down to Treasure Island, warmed up, went for a dip again, ran home and showered."
Two days later, he says, his hands, feet and face "exploded."
"Everything was swollen," he says. "It stayed like that for about a week and a half." A house painter, Corky was working one day when his clients approached him, horrified. "They pointed at my hands. They were bleeding. My hands and feet had split at the knuckles and were bleeding. I had to put on gloves so the blood wouldn't mix with the paint."
He had never experienced anything like that before, but he had an idea of the cause. He knew that of all state beaches, Aliso logged the most documented closures due to sewage spills and flows of what water-quality experts call "non-point source pollution" (the exact sources of the muck in the runoff can't be pinpointed). What he didn't know yet but would soon discover was more horrifying: "I had been swimming in 440,000 gallons of raw sewage," he says.
In the course of his own investigation, Corky discovered that a local water-district pipe backed up just before his early morning swim, pouring the equivalent of 100,000 toilet flushes into the creek and, ultimately, the ocean off Aliso Beach, which holds the dual distinction of being one of the world's most famous surfing spots and the second-dirtiest beach in the United States.
"If there was a warning sign, I didn't see it," Corky says. "I don't swim anywhere near the creek; I was way north of the creek, and this still happened."
SOMEONE PICKED THE WRONG GUY TO SHIT ON Briggs Christian "Corky" Morris-Smith is one of those colorful characters who make Laguna Beach much more than a place to go spend way too much for parking, crappy art and go-go boys. His tall, thin frame is tanned and chiseled from years of surfing and outdoor labor. A tinge of youthfulness is evident in his voice, piercing blue eyes and slightly thinning blond hair, but if you look closely, his 56 years of battling the clock, the elements and life's bullshit are marked in his Germanic face. That nickname? Morris-Smith explains that his grandparents used to throw champagne-fueled parties on their estate. "I'd take the corks and suck on them," he says. "I was an alcoholic at 11?2."
He was born in Connecticut, but his family moved to Laguna Beach when he was 8. "I basically grew up here," he says. An ex-wife and his two sons have since left town. His 32-year-old is a Los Angeles firefighter, and the 34-year-old is a contractor; both reside in Huntington Beach. "They call me White Buffalo because I'm a dinosaur," Morris-Smith says. "They both think I'm nuts. I've not worked outside this town for 35 years. I don't even like driving out of the [Laguna] canyon. I had a girlfriend, but we broke up because I didn't want to drive to Costa Mesa to see her. I'll probably be single for the rest of my life."
He's that stubborn when it comes to his "roots."
"As archaic as it sounds, this is where I live," he says, noting that he's the fourth generation from his family to call Laguna Beach home. "I consider this place special. Most of my friends left 20 to 25 years ago. More than 60 percent have tried to get back, but they can't get back because everything is out of control pricewise."
Morris-Smith did leave Laguna once, early in the Vietnam War when he served in the Navy. After his discharge, he went to college in Fullerton and eventually got degrees in anthropology, archaeology and ethnic studies. His master's thesis was based on-what else?-Laguna Beach's history. He still lectures on archaeology, anthropology and water quality, but his résumé, if he has one, lists his current occupation as "painting contractor." A friend says Morris-Smith chose that noble trade so he can juggle his hours around his lifelong passion: environmental activism.
In the mid-1960s, Morris-Smith helped Laguna Beach's environmental patron saint, James Dilley, start Laguna Greenbelt, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving open space and Laguna Canyon. He has been a surfer for more than 45 years, and in 1989, he approached Tex Haines, who owns Victoria Skimboards in town, with an idea. They would found Laguna Beach's chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, the nonprofit that fights to keep the ocean and coastline clean. The local chapter would attack a mutual concern: the crap running from Aliso Creek into the ocean. There were five members then; now there are more than 200 (although Morris-Smith will tell you the original five still do all the work). He's the president. The Doheny Longboard Association bestowed its first Lorin "Whitey" Harrison Annual Environmental Surf Award to Morris-Smith in December 1997.
"He has numerous awards for his activism, yet he remains a well-kept secret weapon due to his humility," says Roger Butow, a friend, local builder and fellow environmental activist. "Corky is on the verge of bankruptcy-all because he has unilaterally put his ass on the line for his community and the ocean."