Hospitals and sage grouse all coping with detours from Blue Mesa Reservoir bridge closure

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Two Gunnison sage grouses face each other.

Updated at 1:55 p.m. on Tuesday, April 30, 2024

As state highway crews work out repair plans for a critical bridge spanning Colorado’s largest reservoir, Lt. Gov. Dianne Primavera took a step Wednesday that should expedite an eventual reopening of U.S. 50 in Western Colorado.

The bridge over Blue Mesa Reservoir was closed April 18 after inspections revealed a crack in the steel a few inches long. Since the closure, locals have scrambled to keep an already-isolated community connected to critical resources.

Gunnison Valley Health has restructured how it receives critical supplies and how it moves patients that need care at other facilities, said Joelle Ashley, communications director for GVH. 

“We do a lot of inter-facility transfers, and being cut off to the west, that meant that it hindered our ability to get to Montrose hospital, where we take a lot of patients. So we really had to address the issue within our facility transfers first,” Ashley said. “We also have a lot of critical supplies that were coming to us from the west, so we've spent a lot of time working with vendors to make sure we're still getting chemotherapy drugs and clean linens and oxygen and those kinds of things that are critical to the operations of the hospital.” 

Ashley said GVH’s approach has been a mix of sending supplies via County Road 26 — which opened to limited, critical traffic on Monday — or rerouting shipments to come from facilities east of Gunnison. 

“Our couriers who take our lab specimens are able to take that county road now that it's opened... So we're really just working closely with those vendors, with the county, with everybody to get options. It's really across the board how people are getting around at this point,” Ashley said. 

Gunnison Valley Health avoided any critical impacts from the closure, Ashley said, noting that the incident command team for the health care provider had strategies in place that made it easy to adjust. 

More resources

In declaring a disaster emergency, Primavera — acting as governor — cleared the way for Colorado to request money for federal assistance like additional highway funding, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

Colorado’s two senators have also pushed for more aid. In a joint letter, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for more assistance in the way of funds both for bridge repairs and improvements to local detour routes.

Given the remote nature of the area, detours around the damaged structure involved multi-hour trips over hundreds of miles. Gunnison County and the Colorado Department of Transportation have since worked to open a shorter detour option for local, critical traffic. That route involves a trip on a dirt road that leads toward Lake City before reconnecting with U.S. 50 via Highway 149. 

“CDOT has been inspecting the bridge and assessing potential repair options as well as supporting traffic operations and working to improve local roads so they can carry more traffic while the closure of U.S. Highway 50 separates the towns of Gunnison and Lake City from Montrose to the west,” the press release said. “The Colorado Transportation Commission has already approved an emergency request allowing up to $10 million of expenditures on repair and remediation, including utilizing CDOT’s contractors to strengthen Gunnison County Road 26 to serve as a shorter detour.” 

The damaged bridge was built in 1963 and was scheduled for inspection because it is of a similar make to bridges elsewhere in the country that have shown problems with their steel. 

Bracing for extended closures

Liz Smith, a Gunnison County commissioner, says the county is working to improve detour routes quickly, but, given the roads and time of year, the project will be expensive and cumbersome. 

“The cost is enormous. We have started work without figuring out all those details, but we did receive a bid for $7 million,” Smith said. 

The county commissioners have been talking with contractors, restaurant owners and package delivery companies on ways around the lengthy delays. For now, everything from Amazon to asphalt is backed up.

“We had a contractor's kickoff meeting this morning at the courthouse with our county staff and they were forecasting the issues that they're already having: getting lumber, steel, asphalt, things of that nature,” Smith said. “Some are trying to source from the Front Range, but it is certainly challenging.” 

If the delays persist, major projects are sure to see delays with workers and materials stuck on the Montrose side of the bridge. That traffic could take the new detour route — which is currently reserved for local, critical trips escorted by a pilot car — but even with millions of dollars in improvements, the road is not a good fit for many commercial trips. 

On top of that, the route travels through sensitive habitat for Gunnison sage grouse, which is listed as a federally threatened species. Smith said the county spoke with Colorado Parks and Wildlife before moving ahead with the decision to divert traffic along the road through the bird’s habitat. 

“This is a very highly sensitive lekking season for them,” Smith said, referring to the bird’s courtship period. “So we usually have these roads closed until May 15, and it has been, again, just another difficult call in the service of health and human safety to determine it is necessary to open it up despite the possible negative effects.” 

Among the county’s voluminous new priorities is addressing impacts to the area logging and agriculture producers. Smith said material logged in Gunnison is taken to Montrose for processing and important farm supplies are often brought in from the west, meaning extended closures could be particularly damaging for both of those industries. 

“It really illustrates how vulnerable we are in this part of the state. We have mountain passes in every direction. There was a time last week where Monarch Pass closed due to a pretty significant traffic accident, and so we are stuck on Highway 50,” Smith said. “You can't go west, you can't go east. So we're certainly just trying to plan for those types of scenarios and see what we can do If this does become a longer term issue.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include information about Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper's letter to Secretary Pete Buttigieg asking for more assistance.