He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the son of a lawyer and a scriptwriter, and graduated from Earlham College in 1971. For a time he was on the staffs of Environmental Action and the Population Institute in Washington, D.C. Starting in 1972, he worked for seven years as a staff writer and director of communications for the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York. In 1979 he received an Alicia Patterson Journalism Fellowship, which enabled him to conduct research and write Cadillac Desert, which was first published in 1986. The book was a finalist for both the National Book Critics' Circle Award and the Bay Area Book Reviewers' Award (BABRA) that same year. In 1999, a Modern Library panel of authors and critics included it on a list of the 100 most notable English-language works of nonfiction of the 20th century. It was later made into a documentary film series that premiered nationwide on PBS nationwide in 1997 and won a Columbia University/Peabody Award.
He went on to write additional books and helped develop a PBS documentary on water management. He was featured as an interviewee in Stephen Ives's 1996 PBS documentary series The West, which was produced by Ken Burns. In 1997 he published a discussion paper for the American Farmland Trust on water policy and farmland protection. Shortly before he died, he had won a Pew Charitable Trusts Fellowship to support efforts to restore Pacific salmon habitat through dam removal.
Reisner was also involved in efforts to promote sustainable agronomy and green entrepreneurship. In 1990, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy, he co-founded the Ricelands Habitat Partnership, an innovative program designed to enhance waterfowl habitat on California farmlands and reduce pollution by flooding rice fields in winter instead of burning the rice straw, as was then the common practice. He also joined in efforts to help California rice farmers develop eco-friendly products from compressed rice straw, and a separate project to promote water conservation through water transfers and groundwater banking.
For a time, Reisner was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of California at Davis, lecturing on the relationship between urbanization and environmental concerns.
Reisner died of colon cancer in 2000 at his home in San Anselmo, California, survived by his wife, biochemist Lawrie Mott, and their two daughters. His final book, A Dangerous Place, was completed before his death but did not appear in print until 2003.
- Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (1986, revised 1993). ISBN 0-14-017824-4
- Overtapped Oasis: Reform or Revolution for Western Water (with Sarah Bates) (1990). ISBN 0-933280-75-0
- Game Wars: The Undercover Pursuit of Wildlife Poachers (1992). ISBN 0-436-41053-2
- A Dangerous Place: California's Unsettling Fate (2003). ISBN 0-14-200383-2
- Pace, Eric. 25 July 2000. Marc Reisner, Author on the Environment, Dies at 51, The New York Times.
- "Marc Reisner". The Guardian website, July 27, 2000. Obituary.
- The Alicia Pattertson Foundation 1979 Fellowship Winners
- "Marc Reisner: Research". Pew Charitable Trusts website.
- Zinkan, George, ed. Advertising Research: The Internet, Consumer Behavior, and Strategy. South-Western Educational Publications, 2000.
- Oliver, Myrna (July 25, 2000). "Marc Reisner, Environment Writer, Dies". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 17, 2013.