01/25/2012 01:22 pm ET

Denver Water Suing 80-Year-Old Ella Oatman Over Trash On Property; Oatman Believes The Lawsuit Is Retribution

It seemed to have all the perfect elements of a compelling story: perceived government overreach, a helpless grandma figure, and bloodthirsty lawyers. Throw in a treasured environmental resource and crack open a beer, folks, because -- though this isn't quite that story -- it's still one odd duck.

Our tale begins in 1931, when Denver Water obtained a "permanent right-of-way" to dam the South Platte River and the North Fork. The resulting "Two Forks" reservoir would store nearly 350,000 acre feet of water storage, primarily for the benefit of the Denver Metro area.

Fast forward to the late-1980s, when a woman by the name of Ella Oatman stands up to oppose the potential 615-foot-high dam. After much squabbling, the EPA, in conjunction with then-governor of Colorado Roy Romer, reject the dam proposals on environmental grounds.

"Big dams are like dinosaurs living in the space age," said Oatman to the New York Times at the time. "We have too much technology at our fingertips to resort to yesterday's solutions to solve tomorrow's problems."

Now, nearly 20 years later, Oatman believes she's the target of retribution by Denver Water. According to a 7News report, the 80-year-old is on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by the utility. Oatman's property shares a (somewhat disputed) boundary with two Denver Water parcels in Douglas County.

A copy of the lawsuit provided to HuffPost takes specific issue with Oatman's collection of "outside storage/parking of inoperable/unlicensed vehicles and trash, junk, & debris on the property." Oatman contends the lawsuit is unnecessary and out of the blue.

Denver Water spokeswoman Stacy Chesney, however, tells HuffPost that, "Because the waste and debris is on our property, we are at risk of not complying with Douglas County's zoning laws." Chesney maintains the lawsuit is a last resort action, taken after previous requests beginning in 2009 were ignored.

"I don't ask them to live like I do and I wish they wouldn't ask the court to impose their will on me," Oatman told 7News. She added the cars are not visible from the highway.

But why does Denver Water own property there in the first place? "It is not uncommon for us to have undeveloped forest land like this," said Chesney. "Denver Water owns more than 63,000 acres of land in Colorado, much of which is undeveloped and held for watershed protection, water rights or future water projects."

The verdict? Despite Oatman's claims, it seems implausible that Denver Water harbored a grudge for more than 20 years across four governors, just to hit her with a lawsuit when it would trouble her most. Denver Water's previous attempts to clear the property through more civil means check out -- letters provided to HuffPost offered to help Oatman clear the property, including putting her in contact with metal recyclers and car collectors. Oatman, meanwhile, has had no incentive to make life easier for the utility she clearly disdains.

But the debate over a potential Two Forks Dam rages on. The Denver Post writes that in a mid 1990s agreement, the U.S. Forest Service agreed not to take federal control of the area (thereby eliminating Denver Water from the equation entirely) if the utility would relinquish plans to build the reservoir for 20 years. While another 20-year moratorium was agreed to in 2003, the simmering tension will inevitably boil over.

The size of the political battle set to erupt in 2023, when, or if, the moratorium expires, will depend on Denver's water needs. In the meantime -- regardless of your stance on Two Forks -- we'd all be wise to rally around Denver Water's slogan: "Use only what you need."

Click through PHOTOS of Oatman's items on Denver Water Property (all courtesy Denver Water), and VOTE below:



Denver Water Lawsuit