Exposed islands and boulders are disappearing back into Minnesota's rising rivers as steady rainfall lifts more of the state out of drought.

For the first time since spring, more than 1/10th of the state — primarily in southwestern Minnesota — is no longer abnormally dry. But while conditions have been improving, severe and extreme drought still cover most of northern Minnesota, especially near International Falls, Lake of the Woods and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"Slowly but surely, it's been getting better," said Joe Calderone, senior forecaster for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Twin Cities office. "Now we're going into winter, where it's colder and there is not as much evaporation as in the warmer months, and that's really helping to make a dent."

Fall is typically when the state gets its most reliable precipitation. And this year did not disappoint, especially over the past month. A series of October storms and steady rains dumped several inches of water over southern Minnesota, from the South Dakota border to the Twin Cities. Some of the driest parts of northern Minnesota received up to 4 inches of rain in just the past two weeks.

Now the test will be if enough rain can fall to saturate the ground before the soil freezes, Calderone said.

"It's kind of about when the rain occurs," he said. "If it comes when the ground gets colder and can't absorb it, then it just becomes runoff. But either way, the more rain you can get, the more it will decrease drought conditions across the state."

The drought, which started forming last fall, has been one of Minnesota's most severe in the past 30 years. By August, dozens of rivers and streams were down to their lowest recorded levels since at least 1988. A number of the state's waterfalls had dried up. Water use was restricted in the vast majority of the state, and nearly every city and town limited how often lawns could be watered.

Many dairy and produce farms were ravaged. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expecting Minnesota to see a 13-bushel-per-acre decrease in corn yield from 2020, and the federal government will send about $17 million to the state for disaster mitigation.

Restrictions remain in the Rainy River and Red River watersheds, but they have largely been lifted elsewhere.

Severe droughts — aside from during the Dust Bowl — don't typically last long in Minnesota, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

They tend to form during a dry autumn, worsen throughout the summer and start to alleviate the next fall, which seems to be happening with this drought.

With the recent rain, many of the state's streams are back to normal levels, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Some near the North and South Dakota borders, such as the Minnesota River at Ortonville, Minn., are even flowing high.

But in northern Minnesota, including Lake, Cook and Koochiching counties, it will still take about 9 inches of rainfall to bring rivers and the soil back to normal, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

The creeks and tributaries of the Rainy River basin are still near the lowest levels recorded.

There is some hope that more precipitation is on the way, perhaps enough to keep effects of the drought from lingering into the next growing season. A steady rain started covering most of the state Wednesday and is expected to continue into Friday.

A La Niña weather pattern is expected to form this winter over the Pacific Ocean, which typically brings colder than normal weather and higher than normal precipitation to Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, Calderone said.

That could mean that from December to February the state could see some heavy snowfalls. But nothing is certain.

"La Niñas don't all behave the same," Calderone warned. "We even saw one last year, but we still had temperatures above normal and had very low snowfall totals. But there are some signals that this could bump toward a more typical La Niña response, which would mean colder than normal and wetter than normal."

Greg Stanley • 612-673-488