SAN FRANCISCO—Nearly 200,000 people who fled communities around a Northern California dam over fears of catastrophic flooding can return home, officials said Tuesday.
An evacuation order was lifted for areas around Lake Oroville after state officials determined the facility had been safely stabilized.
The evacuations were ordered Sunday after officials warned an auxiliary spillway of the reservoir—which allows the safe diversion of overflow water—was in danger of failure.
That spillway had eroded while it was being used to help lower rising lake levels from heavy rain and snow.
However, officials said they have managed to drain the lake enough to take pressure off that spillway. Further inspection showed the part-concrete, part-earthen spillway wasn’t as compromised as previously thought.
Still, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said an evacuation warning would remain in place as crews continue to work fortifying an eroded section of hillside.
The threat of flooding was much lower, officials said, but advised residents to remain ready to leave quickly amid forecasts for more rain over the next several days.
“Residents need to be prepared,” Mr. Honea said at an afternoon press briefing.
Bill Croyle, acting director of the California Department of Water Resources, said the recent dry weather has allowed crews to release water from a separate, partially damaged spillway at a relatively fast rate.
Since Sunday, the once overflowing lake has fallen by 14 feet and should reach a target of being drawn down a total of 50 feet sometime this weekend, he said. Mr. Croyle added the latest forecasts don’t show as much rain as previous storms. That should result in the lake level rising only a small amount.
The White House on Tuesday said it was monitoring the Lake Oroville situation, while taking steps to try to prevent similar failures around the country.
In his briefing Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president was “keeping close eye” on developments and that the incident reinforces the need to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. “The situation is a textbook example of why we need to pursue a major infrastructure package in Congress—dams, bridges, roads and all ports around the country have fallen into disrepair,” Mr. Spicer said.
Also Tuesday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said it has deployed a team to the site and directed the California Department of Water Resources to initiate immediate design of emergency repairs to prevent further degradation of the two spillways. The state agency operates California’s second-largest reservoir on behalf of the federal government.
“The immediate focus of all involved remains on public safety, emergency repair, and reducing risk,” acting Chairman Cheryl LaFleur said in a statement.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a request by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday that the Trump administration issue an emergency declaration to direct federal assistance for Butte, Sutter and Yuba Counties.
The governor’s letter noted the state had “suffered through more than a dozen disasters in the past year, including several devastating wildfires” and “these disasters have severely impacted California’s financial ability to respond to this crisis.”
A federal emergency declaration authorizes the federal government to provide any essential assistance to the affected area.
At a news conference Monday, the Democratic governor dismissed any concern that Washington might not lend a hand to the state given combative rhetoric on both sides as California officials have publicly vowed to oppose the Trump administration on key policy issues.
Though Mr. Brown opposes the president on climate change and immigration, he said he supports Mr. Trump’s plans to spend money on infrastructure improvements.
“I am sure that California and Washington will work in a constructive way; that is my attitude, there will be different points of view, but we are all one America, and we all have challenges that we share in common and as we defend America, we defend California,” Mr. Brown said.