updated 10/9/2009 2:55:26 PM ET 2009-10-09T18:55:26

A week of fall rains brought major relief to parts of south Texas hardest hit by extreme drought and improved the state's overall condition, a federal drought map shows.

About 6.8 percent of Texas, all in the southern and central parts of the state, is classified under the most extreme two categories of drought, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's drought monitor map released Thursday. That's down from 12.3 percent last week but higher than the 3.6 percent a year ago.

Still, the drought continues in about 34 percent of the state. Three months ago, it covered 68 percent of Texas.

"I'd characterize it as hopefully starting to wind down," said Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. "There's definitely been improvement in most areas in the past month or so.

"The outlook with El Nino in the Pacific is generally cool with wet conditions in the winter time, so we're expecting continued improvement, but that's not guaranteed."

The climatologist added that there's no question that the rains in the drought area north of Corpus Christi have moistened the soil so much that grass and foliage are greening up nicely, especially in pastures that haven't been eaten bare by hungry cattle during the drought.

That's a good start for springtime planting. There's a definite need given that the drought has led to an estimated $3.6 billion in crop and livestock losses statewide, Texas agriculture officials say.

In spite of recent rains, areas of Austin and San Antonio are still experiencing severe drought. And the amount of water needed to significantly boost reservoir levels along the Texas Colorado River continues to fall short, Nielsen-Gammon said.

The two major reservoirs along the Colorado River, Lake Travis and Lake Buchanan, provide drinking water for more than 1 million people and are popular boating and swimming spots. They need between 15 and 20 inches of rain to bring them back to full, Bob Rose, a meteorologist with the Lower Colorado River Authority, has said.

The area, which typically gets just under 7 inches of rain in October and November, has gotten less than half that the past two years so more rain is crucial.

"I'm not going to commit to a nice wet winter, I'm going to hope for one," Nielsen-Gammon said.

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