Environmental Management

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 437–454 | Cite as

“The Kesterson effect”

  • Theresa S. Presser


Hypothesized to be derived from Cretaceous marine sedimentary rocks, selenium contamination of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge is traced through irrigation drainage to the source bedrock of the California Coast Ranges. This biogeochemical pathway of selenium is defined here as the “Kesterson effect.” At the refuge ponds, this effect culminated in 1983 in a 64% rate of deformity and death of embryos and hatchlings of wild aquatic birds. From the previous companion paper on irrigation drainage, the Kesterson effect has been implicated in nine of 11 reconnaissance areas studied in the western United States. Deformities have resulted in at least five of these sites. Climatic, geologic, hydrologic, and soil conditions in these reconnaissance areas are similar to those in the area surrounding Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the west-central San Joaquin Valley of California. In California, selenium, as selenate, was ultimately found weathered with sulfur from marine sources in soluble sodium and magnesium sulfate salts, which are concentrated by evaporation on farmland soils. The Se, mobilized by irrigation drainage, is bioaccumulated to toxic levels in refuge wetland ponds that are located mainly in hydrologically closed basins and thus act as concentrating disposal points. The depositional environment of the ponds may be similar to that of the nutrient-rich continental shelf edge and slope in which Cretaceous, Eocene, and Miocene sediments found to be seleniferous in the California Coast Ranges were deposited. Bioaccumulation may be therefore a primary mechanism of selenium enrichment in ancient sediments in addition to that of the formerly suggested Cretaceous volcanic pathway.

Key words

Selenium Cretaceous marine sedimentary rocks Sulfate evaporative salts Selenoamino acids San Joaquin Valley “Rock to duck” 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Theresa S. Presser
    • 1
  1. 1.National Research ProgramUS Geological SurveyMenlo ParkUSA

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