Area residents displaced by the mandatory evacuation earlier this week due to concerns over the possible failure of the emergency spillway at the Oroville Dam can return home, state and local officials announced on Tuesday.

The mandatory evacuation was downgraded to an evacuation warning, meaning that residents were free to return home, but should still be prepared to evacuate again should conditions warrant, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said the decision to downgrade the evacuation order was based on a number of factors.

Lower lake levels were one reason, Honea said.

State officials said that with the rate of water release through the primary spillway remaining at 100,000 cubic feet per second, over the last two days the lake level has dropped 12 feet below the top of the auxiliary spillway and no longer has water flowing over the top.

This mitigation work will reduce the risk of erosion should the emergency spillway have to be used again, although flow through the primary spillway will continue to attempt to lower the reservoir to 851 feet (approximately 50 feet below full).

With the water level reduced, geologists and dam safety engineering specialists from the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers were able to inspect the damage.  That inspection revealed that the integrity of the emergency spillway was not compromised by the erosion, state officials said.

To prevent further erosion the DWR is lining the front of the spillway with boulders and concrete. That work was expected to be completed Wednesday, ahead of the forecasted stormy weather.

A storm expected to hit Northern California later this week is forecasted to be colder, with less rain and therefore a lower level of water flow into the reservoir than last week.

Officials said disabled residents who need assistance with transportation home should call  HYPERLINK "tel:(530) 342-0221"(530) 342-0221 for para-transport.

Local agencies and medical facilities are working to determine when patients can be returned to evacuated hospitals and skilled nursing facilities. Orchard Hospital in Gridley was one of the local hospitals that evacuated its patients due to the order.

Honea thanked members of the community who were affected by the evacuation for their cooperation and patience.

“It was a difficult decision to order the immediate evacuation, but the need to act swiftly in the face of a potentially catastrophic incident was necessary in order to ensure public safety,” Honea said.

The evacuation order came late Sunday afternoon. More than 180,000 people in Oroville, Gridley and other cities along the Feather River corridor in Butte, Yuba and Sutter counties were ordered to quickly evacuate the area Sunday because dam operators were afraid the structure could collapse.

Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition, said the dam did its job despite being stretched to its limit.

“The spillway in question was an extra precaution taken in addition to the regular overflow mechanisms,” Wade said on Tuesday. “The licensing agency, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), even noted that in an extreme event, some erosion of the emergency spillway would be likely. In other words, it performed as expected.”

Wade said this year is shaping up as one of the wettest in state history, with precipitation in the northern Sierra at 221 percent of average at the present time.

Schools offered relief

From Sacramento, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson on Tuesday directed the California Department of Education (CDE) to work with public schools closed because of evacuations and flood dangers from overflows at Lake Oroville.

Schools can qualify for relief from the loss of Average Daily Attendance (ADA) funding, the main revenue source for local school districts, Torlakson said.

“Any schools forced to close as a result of the evacuations may be able to recoup these important ADA funds,” Torlakson said. “I’ve directed my staff to help affected school administrators through the process of applying for waivers due to school closures. Schools in California should not suffer financially for putting the safety of our students first based on these unprecedented flood dangers.”

United Way ready to help

Meanwhile, United Way of Northern California (UWNC) will continue to provide important information through its 2-1-1 helpline, the organization said in a press release.

Since Sunday, 2-1-1 NorCal has been on disaster footing, linking callers and online users to information regarding shelters, road closures and important services.

Larry Olmstead, President and CEO of UWNC, said United Way welcomes donations to support the helpline’s disaster efforts. “2-1-1 NorCal and 2-1-1 Butte phone lines and web services are being taxed by this crisis, and we expect high call volume to continue throughout the week as residents return home and look for services and updates on the flood situation,” Olmstead said. 

2-1-1 is the 24-hour, 7-day social services helpline that provides free and confidential information and referral services. During crises such as the Oroville spillway incident it is a vital conduit for official disaster information.

UWNC operates 2-1-1 NorCal, covering Shasta and Tehama counties. 2-1-1 Butte is operated by Help Central Inc., a United Way partner agency. Both agencies maintain 2-1-1 websites,  HYPERLINK "http://www.211norcal.org/"www.211norcal.org and  HYPERLINK "http://www.helpcentral.org/"www.helpcentral.org.

The United Way is also seeking donations to help organizations that are helping with relief efforts stemming from the Oroville spillway incident. Donors also can text OROVILLE to 91999, or donate on the United Way website,  HYPERLINK "http://www.norcalunitedway.org/"www.norcalunitedway.org

Olmstead said that should the evacuation order be reinstated, funds raised would also be used to support organizations assisting displaced families.

PG&E provides free gas checks for customers

Meanwhile, PG&E is asking its customers to call  HYPERLINK "tel:(800) 743-5000"1-800-743-5000 if you shut your gas service off before evacuating.

PG&E will send a representative to safely restore gas service, provide a check of any gas appliances and relight any pilot lights. There is no charge to customers for this service.

For complete coverage, see Wednesday’s edition of the Gridley Herald.