I was recently hanging out at my cigar lounge, where we routinely solve the world's problems. While discussing the latest news, I brought up the situation with the levees in California. One of my good friends rather sarcastically stated: "There goes Byron and his levees -- yawn!"

There was collective laughter as we proceeded with our endless debate.

I thought about that moment when watching the coverage of the tornado that tore across Oklahoma City, killing at 91, destroying everything in its way.

I'm not sure how I would feel if I were living in Oklahoma City, my house has been decimated by a tornado and one of my U.S. senators (Tom Coburn-R) is demanding that for me to receive federal aid there must be cuts elsewhere in the budget.

It's a principled position, Coburn has felt this way for other national disasters that did not involve his state, but I'm not certain if it is a position that factors the suffering in an authentic manner.

But Coburn's position is noteworthy largely because it comes on the heels of a major natural disaster. Those of us residing in California may very well come to know what it is like to walk in the shoes of those in Oklahoma City.

Our levees are in dismal shape, badly in need of repair, and there simply does not appear to be a sense of urgency from anyone in Sacramento.

Repairing the levees is not a sexy issue; it will not bring hordes of citizen en masse to the Capitol reenacting Shay's Rebellion. But the potential damage that could occur should the levees fail would dwarf the damage witnessed by Hurricane Katrina.


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In short, the levees are a ticking bomb with an unknown detonation device.

An earthquake, massive spring flooding, flooding in the Central Valley, or internal erosion are among the reasons that could cause the levees to fail. Should any of these occur, UC Davis scientists estimate the costs would exceed $40 billion.

Failed levees could result in salt water contaminating much of the agriculture in the Central Valley. It would have catastrophic impact on the state's robust agriculture industry that would also possess global repercussions.

For example, California produces 60 percent of its rice for domestic consumption. It exports 40 percent to countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey.

The next major earthquake could put available drinking water in jeopardy to an estimated 23 million Californians.

When it comes to levees, there are no liberal or conservative talking points, either they are repaired or they are not.

For the past decade, editorials have been written about the condition of the California's levees. How many additional natural disaster examples will it require before California reaches the inevitable conclusion?

Surprisingly, more is not being done to repair the infrastructure that is critical to the world. To repair the levees in California will require public investment, political leadership, and public oversight.

At present, California appears to be lacking all three.

For decades the state's political leadership has looked the other way as California's infrastructure, once the gold standard of the nation, has fallen into decay.

This is not something that can be accomplished on the cheap; it may require that revenues will be raised. Meanwhile, political leadership on both sides of the aisle must make the case to a distrustful public, possessing all the interest of a yawn, that it is better to invest now than after the fact.

The only problem, no one knows when "after the fact" will transpire.

There is absolutely no reason for California not to attempt to make every effort to avoid catastrophe. I know it's not sexy, but it's where we should focus our collective attention.

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