Signatures of self-organized criticality (SOC) have recently been observed in an ultracold atomic gas under continuous laser excitation to strongly interacting Rydberg states [S. Helmrich et al., Nature, 577, 481–486 (2020)]. This creates unique possibilities to study this intriguing dynamical phenomenon under controlled experimental conditions. Here we theoretically and experimentally examine the self-organizing dynamics of a driven ultracold gas and identify an unanticipated feedback mechanism originating from the interaction of the system with a thermal reservoir. Transport of particles from the flanks of the cloud toward the center compensates avalanche-induced atom loss. This mechanism sustains an extended critical region in the trap center for timescales much longer than the initial self-organization dynamics. The characteristic flattop density profile provides an additional experimental signature for SOC while simultaneously enabling studies of SOC under almost homogeneous conditions. We present a hydrodynamic description for the reorganization of the atom density, which very accurately describes the experimentally observed features on intermediate and long timescales, and which is applicable to both collisional hydrodynamic and chaotic ballistic regimes.