Rain is falling regularly and rivers are running high.

So what is Drew Bowen, town administrator in the Frederick County community of Middletown, doing out on Braddock Mountain, poking around in the town's water source? Why does he look so pensive?

Well, he's hoping and praying. And he's wishing that Middletown, population 2,668, was just a little closer to the heart of the Washington metropolitan area -- a little closer, that is, to the area's huge water supply.

"This is worse than it's ever been," he said of the aquifer-fed spring that has served as the town's water source since 1893. "It's almost completely dried up."

The spring, which in good times can gush with water many feet deep, is little more than a trickle. The same holds true at water sources for many towns on the exurban fringe of Washington, outside the reach of the region's major metropolitan water supplies and dependent on badly depleted groundwater.

While there are signs that much of the region is shaking off an 18-month-long drought that was approaching historical records, water wells in outlying areas are still parched and could remain that way for many months to come.

Maryland officials are considering easing water-use restrictions that have been in place since spring, and the City of Frederick announced Thursday that it is scaling back its water-use limits. But Frederick County towns such as Thurmont, Emmitsburg and Middletown expect to retain strict prohibitions on water use for many months.

The primary difference is between surface water and groundwater: While most of the Washington region depends on surface water, which has nearly returned to normal levels for the District and its close-in suburbs, outlying towns often depend on wells. And it can take months, if not years, for precipitation to replenish them.

Two of Middletown's 14 wells went dry in September, just as significant rains were starting to relieve drought conditions around the region. The others are producing below-normal levels, Bowen said.

The problem persists despite above-normal rains in October and this month. Precipitation across the Potomac River basin was as much as two inches above normal for that period after 18 straight months of below-normal rains.

Most rivers have returned to normal levels, and the two reservoirs that feed the Potomac River -- and provide water for about 90 percent of the population of the Washington metropolitan area -- are nearly full again.

"Everything is on a positive path," said Saeid Kasraei, program administrator for water at the Maryland Department of the Environment. "We have made a big improvement from where we were back in August."

Rainfall at the three regional airports is already nearly an inch above normal for November, according to the National Weather Service, and several heavy, prolonged rains in October helped bump monthly rainfall totals as much as two inches above normal.

This summer, many parts of the region were as much as 17 inches below normal rainfall for the 18 preceding months. In all areas, that deficit has been cut -- substantially, in some places -- by two months of above-normal rains, said Maryland state climatologist Ken Pickering.

"We seem to be on the right track," he said.

In Frederick County, recent rains have slashed as much as six inches from the overall deficit, Pickering said. Even northeast of Baltimore, the area hardest hit by the drought, a 21-inch deficit has dropped to 17 inches.

Which is great for surface water sources: The two reservoirs that augment the Potomac River were 84 and 89 percent full last week. But that doesn't help Middletown, 10 miles from the Potomac and dependent on a stubbornly low water table.

"We need a very wet fall and a very snow-filled winter to really recharge the aquifer," said Bowen, the Middletown administrator. "You don't recover from a historical drought in one season."

The good news for residents who rely on wells, however, is that cool weather gives aquifers a better chance to fill back up than the summer, when evaporation and thirsty plants soak up most rainfall before it seeps below the surface.

During the summer, only about 10 to 15 percent of rainfall makes it to the water table, Kasraei said. But with vegetation dormant, and humans also using less water, as much as 75 percent of precipitation water trickles down.

Wells were still going dry this week around Maryland and Virginia, officials in both states said.

In Central Maryland, 1,465 wells have failed this year -- more than three times the normal number of failing wells. Maryland's Eastern Shore fared slightly better, with 1,066 wells failing this year compared with about 630 normally.

Virginia has also had thousands of wells fail -- double the number usually encountered.

"We won't know for several more months how we're doing on groundwater," said Don Hayes, a hydrologist in the U.S. Geological Survey's Richmond office.

Officials in many exurban towns are frantically searching for new wells to drill.

They are running into long delays because well-drilling companies have been overwhelmed with unusually brisk business.

Gary Dingle, Thurmont's superintendent of water, has started looking for a company to drill a new well for the town. He was told he would have to wait until mid-December. All five of the town's wells are still well below normal levels, Dingle said.

On Thursday, the City of Frederick, which relies on surface and groundwater, was able to scale back its water restrictions, lifting some of the more strict requirements because of unexpectedly wet weather for the past two months.

In fact, Mayor Jennifer Dougherty, who for nearly a year has regularly reminded residents to conserve water, has begun slipping into the past tense when she talks about the drought.

"Obviously, this drought wasn't just in the City of Frederick, it was around the state," she said at a news briefing.

Does that then mean the drought is past?

"No," Dougherty said. "But we're feeling just a little bit better because our reservoirs are restored. But we still need to be sure that we're not being cavalier about water usage."

Town administrator Drew Bowen walks along Middletown's 1.5 million-gallon reservoir, which is supplied with scarce groundwater. Two of the town's 14 wells went dry in September; others are producing below-normal levels.Spring water normally gushes from the rocks behind Drew Bowen at the town's main well. "We need a very wet fall and a very snow-filled winter to really recharge the aquifer," he said. "You don't recover from a historical drought in one season."