It is understandable that our collective attention is swayed by the issue de jour. After all, the world of 24-hour news -- which is actually closer to four hours of news and 20 hours of looping prods -- bombards us until we acquiesce our attention to what is offered.

This means that issues of great importance that may transcend the doctrinaire talking points are met with an acute disinterest.

Therefore, the issue of today, with its short shelf life, becomes the victor over more long-term concerns. As I alluded in last week's column, the condition of California's levees qualifies as just such an issue.

In 2011, the Army Corps of Engineers declared 122 levees nationwide were "at risk of failure." Of these, 19 were on the Sacramento River.

I know it's not sexy, but the levees need our collective attention. We need political leadership to shift the almost-exclusive focus on today and direct some of it toward tomorrow. Antiquated and ineffective policies, coupled with decades of nearly nonexistent leadership, place California on the brink of disaster.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers comprise 700 miles of waterways along with 1,100 miles of levees.

The water is used to cool power plants as well as other industries and businesses. The Delta also serves as a transportation corridor where highways, pipelines, power lines, railroads and ships merge. These levees, pipelines and roadways rest near many active faults.

A significant earthquake or massive spring flooding could increasing pressure on levee walls, internal erosion or maintenance neglect and cause failure that scientists estimated in 2008 would cost California $40 billion.

Moreover, the state does not have the money to do what is required.

If the levees fail, a 2008 UC Davis study estimates, 23 million Californians would have no drinking water and up to 1 million acres of some of the best, most productive farmland in the world will disappear as salt water permeates the soil.

The reduction of drinking water alone would move the state perilously close to anarchy.

One need not be a seismologist to conclude California is long overdue for a major earthquake that would pose serious risk to the levees and the California economy.

That levees need attention is universally accepted, but how to go about it is a different matter.

Ironically, in 1982 Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a "peripheral canal" project that would have diverted water around the Delta, but voters in a ballot initiative rejected the plan.

Brown is once again championing something similar in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. In lieu of canals, two 40-foot-diameter tunnels would start at one end of the region and burrow underneath the Delta for 35 miles to existing pumping stations and canals at the other end, reducing reliance on the current aging system of levees and dams.

This could require diverting northern water south. It wasn't a popular idea in 1982, but do we have the luxury of reluctance in 2013? Are there less-expensive solutions available in the private sector? Or perhaps a public-private partnership would suffice?

Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: The time to act is finite. And while our attention is focused on the issue de jour, the calendar, hourglass and schedule to relieve California from potential catastrophe flounders leaving the state's fate solely in the hands of Mother Nature.

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or byron@byronspeaks.com.