Climate watchers have declared an official end to the drought that began spreading across much of Minnesota nine months ago.

Despite the attention it got, it was only a minor climate calamity -- relatively well-timed, as droughts go, relatively short-lived and typical of a climate in which normal is "something we're zipping past on our way to an extreme," DNR climatologist Greg Spoden said.

The portion of Minnesota experiencing some level of drought dropped from 79 percent last week to 10 percent Thursday, according to a weekly update from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But even that 10 percent included Waseca County, where the Southern Research and Outreach Center on Wednesday declared the drought "over for south-central Minnesota."

Since April 1, much of the southern half of the state has received 5 to 8 inches of precipitation. The Twin Cities had gotten 7.33 through Wednesday, more than double the normal of 3.30. During the preceding eight months, August through March, the Twin Cities was 7.45 inches below normal.

Most of the recent rain has penetrated the dry top 5 feet of soil, Spoden said, benefiting farmers, gardeners and landscapes. Some has then continued into rivers and lakes. Anglers heading to Lake Minnetonka for this weekend's walleye season opener, for example, will find the water level nearly 6 inches higher than it was only a month ago. Basswood Lake, on the Canadian border, is up nearly 2 feet from what it was just after ice-out.

Timing a key

But Spoden noted that assessing a drought is largely subjective, with difficult-to-pinpoint origins and varying effects. Had the recent dry spell occurred during a growing season, he said, it "would have been mentioned among the great droughts in history." Instead, because much of it happened during winter, local governments were pleased by how much money they weren't spending on snow removal.

If above-normal rainfall continues, rivers and lakes will not benefit as much as they have recently because emerging plants will grab the moisture first, Spoden added.

St. Cloud State University meteorology Prof. Bob Weisman, in a daily newsletter this week, even put the word "drought" in quotes.

"Everybody likes to complain about the weather, and that's fine," Weisman said in an interview. "But we know in the normal climate record we've had much more severe droughts. Is our lifestyle [such that] we can no longer tolerate the range of extremes?"

Weisman noted that the dry spell began abruptly after nearly a year with above-normal precipitation. But by midwinter, a campus business group at St. Cloud State declared drought to be the top issue of concern for local businesses, he said.

"If we're talking economic hardship being caused because we've had below-normal [precipitation] for six months, then we've got problems," Weisman said. "We seem to be more and more dependent on that 'sweet spot,' where we get the rain that's necessary to keep your grass green every week, or to keep the sap running perfectly, or enough snow so the resorts up north get the tourist business, but not so much that people in the Twin Cities can't get to them."

Tom Hoverstad, scientist with the Waseca agricultural research station, said Minnesota farmers benefited from the warm, dry start to spring and now the rain. But they're not celebrating, he said.

"We're always only two weeks from another drought," he said.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646