LandSat photo of the vicinity of Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.
In 1989, the National Academy of Sciences—the most august scientific tribunal in America—studied "Irrigation Induced Water Quality Problems" and introduced their report by stating:
"In 1982, scientists made an unexpected discovery at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge...in California's San Joaquin Valley. They determined that irrigation drainage water was increasing selenium concentrations in the refuge's ponds and causing reproductive failures and deaths in some species of aquatic organisms and waterfowl.
"The rapidity of the contamination was without precedent. From the time the ponds were built in 1971 until 1978, Kesterson inflow was entirely fresh water. It was exclusively irrigation drainage water by 1981. Barely two years later, in 1982, the first problems were noted.
"The contaminant involved—selenium—also was unprecedented. In the past, water quality degradation resulting from irrigated agriculture usually was associated with salinity, although residues from fertilizers and pesticides also sometimes caused problems. No one had anticipated contamination by the trace element selenium. Thus the discovery of Kesterson's very visible selenium contamination attracted national attention, and it set in motion a widespread effort to identify causes and remedies."
Kesterson's Reservoir was subsequently closed and sealed from further use to protect migratory birds along the Pacific Flyway and the public's health.
An excellent account of irrigation-induced water quality problems originating at Kesterson Wildlife Refuge is Tom Harris' 1990 book, Death in the Marsh. It is still available in print, online, and in the used book market.
KQED in San Francisco aired a documentary by C-WIN adviser and noted author and geographer Gray Brechin in the mid-1980s that seems to be out of circulation, however.