Beach Blanket Stinko
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."
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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 rsum, 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."
ALL LOADS LEAD TO ALISO CREEK Morris-Smith remembers when he was a kid, Aliso Creek ran only after storms. Years of development along the creek-which runs from Modjeska Canyon in Cleveland National Forest to South Laguna-have created a year-round flow of urban runoff. By the time the slime empties into the Pacific, it includes chemicals, fecal matter and God only knows what else. Too many residents spray their lawns with pesticides, too many golf-course greens are kept green with the aid of herbicides, too many roads and driveways collect motor oil, too many people illegally dump trash in gutters, too many dogs crap in the streets-and it all winds up in storm drains that pour into Aliso Creek.
But there are times when the cause for increased shit levels in the creek can be determined. A fixture in Laguna Beach with friends all over the place, when word of Morris-Smith's disgusting beach encounter began spreading around town, he says he started receiving material "from I don't know who," including, he alleges, local water-district records of phone calls and sewer spills that hadn't been reported to state water-quality officials as required by law. Morris-Smith says he discovered district mishaps caused 61 sewage spills within the Laguna Beach city limits between 1980 and 1993-31 of which spoiled Aliso Beach.
Here's what else he has learned from those documents, court records and other sources:
Moulton-Niguel Water District-which serves Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo and parts of Laguna Hills, Mission Viejo and Dana Point-owns a pumping station that sends raw sewage to a regional treatment plant. When the station backs up, excess shit runs down an 18-inch line into a pump downstream owned by the South Coast Water District, which covers south Laguna and parts of Dana Point.
There is just one problem: South Coast's 18-inch line cannot handle that district's sewage and the ever-increasing loads from Moulton-Niguel, which served eight people when it was founded in 1960 but was up to 110,000 by 1992. Whenever Moulton-Niguel had to rely on the South Coast pump as a backup, the system would do just that: back up, spilling sewage into Aliso Creek that would eventually wash into the ocean off Aliso Beach.
In 1992, both districts hired an engineering firm to determine what they should do to handle the combined capacity. HYA Engineering prepared a draft report indicating that the two existing pumps would have to be upgraded and a third pump would have to be added in case the others failed. Total cost: $158,000. But Moulton-Niguel refused to chip in, choosing instead to improve its own equipment; thanks to newer emergency devices, district officials say, South Coast is now regarded as "a backup to a backup system."
But the upgrades to Moulton-Niguel's station were insufficient in 1995, when a backhoe operator who was not affiliated with the district accidentally broke a pipe and sewage was re-routed to the South Coast pump. Another backup occurred, and 20,000 gallons of shit poured into Aliso Creek. South Coast's general manager wrote to Moulton-Niguel officials and demanded that they abide by the engineer's recommendations. Moulton-Niguel officials balked. The South Coast general manager in 1997 had his workers plug the pipeline from Moulton-Niguel. (South Coast's manager later said he had the pipe plugged because previous winter storms created creek flows that broke the line. The plug has since been replaced by a valve that can be opened or closed depending on the situation.)
On Jan. 7, 1997, after Moulton-Niguel's system went down, 440,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into Aliso Creek and moved as inexorably as diarrhea into Aliso Beach, mingling with the water in which Morris-Smith went swimming.
Laguna Beach attorney Patrick D. Goggin, a spirited environmentalist whose law-partner father is a former state assemblyman, attended a Surfrider meeting, heard Morris-Smith's sad tale and took his case. In January 1998, Goggin filed a federal suit for Morris-Smith, alleging that the Moulton-Niguel and South Coast water districts had violated the Clean Water Act with that spill and several others into Aliso Creek over a 10-year period. In December of that same year, the case was thrown out for lack of evidence: between the time the case was filed and the judge's decision, the districts performed extensive upgrades of their systems, although they did not add the third pump recommended by the engineering firm. Looking at those recent improvements, U.S. District Court Judge Gary L. Taylor decided Morris-Smith "has presented no evidence showing that these upgrades do not make future spills unlikely." Morris-Smith is appealing that decision. Long Beach attorney William P. Barry, who represents the districts, says his clients are considering an appeal of Taylor's decision against having Morris-Smith pay their $208,000 in attorney fees and expenses.
Meanwhile, Goggin, on behalf of Morris-Smith and Dennis Morin, who has owned the "Rock House" residence on South Coast Highway at the Aliso Creek mouth for five years, filed suit in state court in February 1998 against the districts alleging that the spill constituted a nuisance, trespass and negligence. They're heading for a July 26 trial. Morris-Smith and Morin, who claims his property value dropped $1 million as a result of the spill, are seeking more than $7 million in damages. Barry, who is also representing the districts in that case, said he does not know how Morris-Smith had not seen the many signs warning of contamination at Aliso Beach. But Goggin said: "This is a landmark case. If we get to trial, they're in trouble."
SIGNS OF THE TIDES After a rainstorm, swimmers are advised to keep out of the waters along the entire Orange County coast because of high bacteria levels in urban runoff. But it is up to the water districts to inform the county and the federal Environmental Protection Agency when a sewage spill enters a watershed/beach, how big it is and when they estimate they'll stop the flow, according to Larry Honeybourne, who's the water-quality chief with the county's Health Care Agency. The county then decides how much of the beach to close and how long it will remain off-limits to swimmers-generally 48 to 72 hours, but some have lasted up to six months.
However, if it's a smaller spill, the county tests the water, and when results come back in 48 to 72 hours showing dangerous contaminants present, the red-and-white signs go up. "So if you're swimming in the ocean one day, and you go back the next day, and signs are up, you know damn well you had been swimming in the stuff," Morris-Smith says. "And no one said a word."
And by the time those signs are posted, tides and churning waves have dissipated the problem, Surfrider's Haines noted.
"The county does nothing but post signs," Goggin says. "In the summer, you see kids playing in that water because it's warm. Nobody's taking responsibility for that creek. Nobody."
Who would want to? County and Surfrider tests have shown the creek often exceeds state levels for fecal-coliform bacteria, mostly where it pours into the ocean. The creek's cesspool stew-which contains potential carcinogens, including heavy metals, motor oil, diesel fuel, lawn chemicals, and people and animal shit-creates disgusting brown plumes that can often be seen washing into the ocean. If ingested, health officials warn, you can get gas, rashes, diarrhea, earaches, sore throats, eye infections and even such potentially deadly maladies as hepatitis, typhoid fever, brain damage and immune-system failure.
What bothers Morris-Smith most is that local officials are not as openly alarmed about the constant health risk as he and his compadres are. Morris-Smith, Haines and Butow claim they've been told no proof exists that anyone has gotten sick from Laguna's beaches.
"When you look on the news during a storm, all the newscasters have to remind surfers that even though there is good surf, stay out of the water for a minimum of 48 hours," Morris-Smith says. "Surfers are now the canaries of the ocean. We didn't think anything of it before. Now we'll get a rash or an earache or hepatitis after surfing, yet they'll tell us we can't prove anything is happening here."
Haines, who is in his mid-40s, remembers at age 9 visiting his grandparents at Treasure Island mobile-home park, which used to be next to Aliso Beach, and being told he couldn't go in the water because "I'd get boils. So I did, and I did. It's been dirty a hell of a long time." He now tests that water daily for Surfrider. "It's always dirty-every day," he says. "It never gets clean."
He recalled a time years ago when he accompanied a county water-quality expert to test various points along the meandering 12-mile creek. When Haines discovered high fecal-coliform levels much higher into the watershed than anyone ever expected, the county official "was almost hysterical," he says. "She said: 'You can't publish this. No one will understand. It will scare them so much.' She was so strident it was shocking. The key to them is to not inform the public because it's a problem that is too big for them to handle anymore."
Honeybourne would not speak on Haines' encounter, but on the idea the county doesn't want to inform the public of the magnitude of the problem, he said: "All of us believe that urban runoff represents an unacceptable public health risk. That's why signs are posted."
SO MANY CURES, SO LITTLE TIMESeveral solutions to the Aliso Creek water-quality problem have been presented lately. In 1997, the county authorized the funding of a sand berm at the Aliso Creek Bridge and Pacific Coast Highway that would create a shallow pool from which polluted water could be pumped through a pipeline and sent about 2 miles offshore. But 1998's El Nio rains provided too high of a runoff flow to build the berm as planned, and construction is now scheduled to begin once the current rainy season ends, according to Michael Wellborn, a senior planner with the county.
Honeybourne stressed the berm is a "short term" solution because, while it gets the tainted water off the beach where people are swimming, "it doesn't get to the long-term issues of why the watershed is polluted."
To get to that, the county-in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, five South County cities, six water districts (including Moulton-Niguel) and the Aliso Water Management Agency (a consortium of seven water agencies, including Moulton-Niguel and South Coast, that operate three water treatment plants)-is in the midst of a $1.2 million study aimed at figuring out how to widen, lengthen and re-slope Aliso Creek and thus improve the water that flows into the Pacific. If everything goes as outlined in preliminary plans, watershed projects could begin taking shape in five years. But several Laguna Beach residents remain skeptical over where the multimillions of dollars needed for the work is going to come from.
Haines believes a more common-sense-and affordable-approach would be to do what towns in northern California towns such as Arcata have already done: create a wetlands system with vegetation in usually empty flood-retention basins along the creek channel to naturally filter the water. But when he pitches that idea at local government meetings, he says officials tell him, "Shut up; sit down."
Those officials should open their ears because the plan has merit, according to Honeybourne. But he also noted that the creek provides flood control in the winter, moving runoff water to the sea as quickly as possible. Wetlands would impede that function. Someone needs to figure out how to use the creek as a filtration system in the summer and a flood-control channel in the winter, Honeybourne said.
Butow has a different, but compatible, plan. He has gone before the Laguna Beach City Council twice recently to call for a city pollution-control officer who would cite people and businesses whose practices foul the beaches. Observers at those meetings say the response he got back from his civic leaders was blank stares.
Laguna Beach's chapter of the Surfrider Foundation in spring 1998 urged the city to adopt a 10-point plan to keep beaches in the city clean. Among the plan's strategies: identify sources of pollution; test creek and storm-drain water flows onto beaches; eliminate septic-system seepage into Laguna Canyon Creek; adopt a policy diverting non-flood creek and storm-drain waters into sewage lines or outfalls; vigorously seek improved water quality in Aliso Creek from the agencies contributing to the watershed; identify the commonest sewage-system failures and take steps to eliminate or at least capture those spills before they hit the beaches; post signs in English and Spanish at all city storm-drain outlets that read "Warning! Storm drain water may cause illness. Do not play in drain-flow water"; and examine the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project Study, which confirmed health officials' fears about high bacteria levels being present within 100 yards of where urban runoff hits beaches. Again, no response.
Honeybourne is optimistic something positive for Aliso Creek will come out of all the competing improvement ideas. "Something can be done," he said. "But it will take time, money and everyone pulling together. I do think there's a groundswell on this with the environmental groups, county public health and others. A lot of people are interested in solving the problem."
WAITING FOR JOHNNIE COCHRAN "The water districts have nothing to do with this historical and chronic creek contamination," Barry wrote in his statement to the Weekly.
But until the recent dry spell, the only method for attacking the problem has been this: wait for pipes to break, power to go out or systems to back up; see and smell shit in the surf; and then go fix the source of the spills. This approach had bizarre implications. In September 1990, for example, a plastic sewer pipe cracked at a golf course upstream and spilled 5,000 gallons of raw sewage into Aliso Creek. It was repaired. Three months later, another section of the same pipe cracked, and 85,000 more gallons of shit intruded into the creek. It was repaired again. In September 1992, a line had to be shut down so divers could inspect a patch on an underwater pipe that had caused a previous spill. But they took too long, the system backed up, and 80,000 gallons of sewage flooded the creek.
From the standpoint of the shareholders of the water districts, the wait-and-fix-it method made short-term financial sense. Most pipes and facilities along the creek are old and weren't designed to handle the region's rampant growth over the past few decades. It would take millions of dollars-and several unpopular rate hikes-to come up with a brand-new system that would keep the creek and beach clean. The more cost-effective approach certainly kept maintenance crews busy. The major spills alone-those more than 5,000 gallons reported from 1989 until Morris-Smith's encounter in 1997-resulted in more than 6.6 million gallons of raw sewage fouling Aliso Beach, which in 1995 was closed more frequently than any other Orange County beach and coined "Avoid Aliso" by residents.
The built-in public-relations problems for a tourist destination like Laguna Beach prompted the city to install sensors, new pipes and backup generators. And after horrific mudslides, sewer spills and other calamities during the 1997-1998 El Nio phenomenon, it has been relatively quiet on the shit-spill front. But after three horrendous years of sewage accidents, not one spill was recorded in town in 1991. Then came seven years of some of the biggest spills in city history.
"Corky's suit has led to millions of dollars worth of improvements, but there's only a limited amount of crud they can dump in the ocean, and they want to expand [sewage] capacity," Haines says.
"Since we came along, the city [and water agencies] have done a helluva good job fixing pumps and pipes. But they're playing catch-up. They should have been doing that 20 years ago," says Morris-Smith, who advocates building the third pump called for in the HYA Engineering report and stricter enforcement against polluters upstream. "People are more worried about their houses and their Mercedeses than they are about the ocean. But if the ocean goes, their property values are going down the toilet with it."
Butow believes part of the problem is city officials don't spend any time in the water, yet they want to ensure tourists keep hitting the beach. "It's the Jaws mentality," he says. "They say what we're doing is bad for tourism. Well, fuck me, but all it's going to take is for the son of a Johnnie Cochran to come down here, swim in our waters, get sick and die, and we'll all be paying Johnnie Cochran for the rest of his life."
A THOUSAND SOURCES Wayne Baglin is one official who has spent some time in the water. A former Laguna Beach councilman, current member of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board and chairman of the Aliso Water Management Agency, which manages the region's sewers, Baglin says you can't just target the sewage operators. His logic might sound self-serving. But it also makes sense: major spills occur only a dozen or so times per year, while the creek and beach are polluted constantly and by a hundred, maybe a thousand, small sources contributing to a massive tributary of waste, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year.
Baglin believes the answer is to find the source of the pollution up and down the creek and threaten the cities, other government agencies, individuals or whoever is fouling the creek to clean up their acts or face stiff penalties under the federal Clean Water Act. In fact, he has identified much higher levels of pollution at a single storm drain at Aliso Parkway in Laguna Niguel. The drain is used solely by residences built during the past 30 years, and it logs more failing grades than any other spot along the creek-even places where businesses, industries and, yes, even sewage-treatment plants pour into it. Baglin expects total cooperation from the city of Laguna Niguel in discovering the source of the muck and taking care of the problem.
"That's the future," he says. "That will have more impact than the structural changes the Army Corps of Engineers is proposing. Educate everyone in question, and perform minor repairs up and down the creek. . . . I think we now truly have the direction to do something about it."
Baglin says his interest in keeping the ocean clean goes back to 1969, when he bodysurfed in Laguna Beach's Victoria Cove and noticed green slime at the surf line from an old sewage-treatment plant in town. When the plant moved to another location, the slime went with it. "When I called the government officials and told them about it, they told me it didn't exist," he says.
Later, his teenage son and friends skimboarded at Aliso Beach-which is considered one of the planet's premier skimboarding spots-and came home with flu symptoms or infections around bruises and scratches. When Baglin told county officials about it, they urged him to have the teens file reports. "Getting a bunch of teenagers to whine and whimper is hard to do," he says. "But my son did it. And he felt he was just dealing with bureaucrats who didn't really care, so he never did it again."
MAD ABOUT TOWN Walking out to his big blue truck, which is parked somewhat legally in the alley behind the Wahoo's Fish Taco (unofficial headquarters of the local Surfrider chapter) on South Coast Highway, Morris-Smith exchanges greetings in fluent Spanish with a worker who is hosing something off on the joint's Ping-Pong table-sized lawn.
After fetching some papers in his truck, Morris-Smith sums up why he may be risking everything for Laguna's beaches. "My ex-wife couldn't understand it. My sons don't understand it," Morris-Smith says. "I know it sounds corny, but I love this town, man. Not only is this the place where I live, but spiritually, it's also an important place for me. When I get in the water, it's a release. It's sanctuary from the inland madness.
"I've received threatening phone calls-'Who do you think you are by suing the water district, creating problems in your hometown?' This has nothing to do with Surfrider. I'm just a private citizen caring about my town. If they fix stuff up after my suit, great. If they had done it before, I wouldn't have brought the suit."
Tears welling up in his eyes, he concludes: "I love this town. I get up in the morning, and I look out the window and see Catalina, and I think, 'Shit, how can I be mad about anything?'"
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