Subsurface agricultural drainage waters from western San Joaquin Valley, California, were found to contain elevated concentrations of the element selenium in the form of selenate. In 1978, these drainage waters began to replace previous input to Kesterson Reservoir, a pond system within Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge; this substitution was completed by 1982. In the 1983 nesting season, unusual rates of deformity and death in embryos and hatchlings of wild aquatic birds (up to 64% of eared grebe and American coot nests) occurred at the refuge and were attributed to selenium toxicosis. Features necessary for contamination to have taken place included geologic setting, climate, soil type, availability of imported irrigation water, type of irrigation, and the unique chemical properties of selenium. The mechanisms of biogeochemical cycling raise questions about other ecosystems and human exposure.