Most of the North Bay cities at risk for drought conditions and water shortages are well-positioned to face another dry year in 2021, but bigger issues could loom next year as California faces one of its driest periods on record, experts said Thursday during a panel discussion.

The panel, hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, focused on already concerning trends in the state’s water supply as well as how the 2012-16 drought can help inform how state and local officials tackle the ongoing drought emergency.

According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information, April 2019 to March 2021 was the fourth-driest two-year period in the state since 1900, sitting behind 2012-14, 2013-15 and 1975-77.

The current and previous droughts have also been warmer than most two-year data periods on record, which adds stress on regional water supplies by increasing fire risk, water use and risks to temperature-sensitive ecosystems and organisms.

“We have historic drought conditions, reservoirs that are at their lowest levels at this time of year ever,” said Sonoma County Water Agency general manager Grant Davis, one of the discussion’s three panelists.

“Basically … we’re in the second year of what would have been a third-year drought,” Davis said. “And that’s the problem, it’s come on faster and it’s more dramatic, more pronounced.”

State and local officials in Sonoma and Marin counties have already begun hedging against water levels in the Russian River watershed getting back to normal any time soon.

“Basically … we’re in the second year of what would have been a third-year drought. And that’s the problem, it’s come on faster and it’s more dramatic, more pronounced.”

Grant Davis, Sonoma County Water Agency

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a regional drought emergency in the watershed, which partially flows through Sonoma County.

Water supplies in both Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma are at historic lows for this time of year, which also prompted public water utilities in Sonoma and Marin counties this week to ask customers to reduce their water use by 20 percent.

“Gov. Newsom stood at the bottom of Lake Mendocino and declared that where he was standing, he would have been 40 feet underwater” in a normal year, Grant said. “Very dramatic statement, but true. Hard to comprehend that we were in such a dire situation.”

The panelists noted that improvements in water level data collection and management have improved since the last drought, giving water supply experts more tools to monitor local conditions in the coming years.

Early conservation action will also be key to managing the North Bay’s water supply the longer the drought continues, the panelists said, with investments necessary now to avoid being caught flat footed when supply levels get even lower.

“Looking at what has happened between the last drought and this drought, we are more optimistic,” WPC research fellow Alvar Escriva-Bou said. “Significant investments and new mandates are quite likely to increase our preparedness this time. But to avoid the worst outcomes, we need to have responses as early as possible, especially to avoid the worst possible outcomes for this summer but also to plan for a potential third year of drought, which would be really painful.”