Many Americans know the name Kesterson as the California site where thousands of birds and fish were discovered with gruesome deformities in 1983, a result of exposure to selenium-poisoned farm runoff. Thirty-five years later, it is one of the oldest unresolved water problems in the state.
Selenium, a naturally occurring element, is essential to people and animals alike in small doses. But selenium continues pouring off many San Joaquin Valley farms in larger quantities, which can be toxic. The United States Bureau of Reclamation, which is legally obligated to solve the drainage problem as owner of the Central Valley Project irrigation system, has failed to find a fix.
"It's not an easy problem to solve," said Rachel Zwillinger, a water policy adviser at Defenders of Wildlife. "The scope of the problem is large and the consequences of not doing it well—as we learned at Kesterson—are profound."