The Watering of Kiryas Joel

Seventeen years in the making, water from Phase One of the village pipeline to flow in June

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  • Photos provided by the Village of Kiryas Joel A work site inside the village of Kiryas Joel, where workmen have been laying, burying and otherwise constructing a water-transmission pipeline. The tap is expected to be turned on in June and well water will start flowing to KJ from a village-owned wellhead in Mountainville.

  • A back hoe operator digs the latest section of the pipeline path that will bring water from Mountainville into Kiryas Joel by June.

  • The connections continue.

  • The big water tank at a well in the Mountainville section of Cornwall. It has been connected to Kiryas Joel by the first seven miles of a 13.5-mile pipeline that could become operational and provide water to the village by June.

By Douglas Feiden

— The comprehensive modern history of the consumption of water from the wells of Orange County has not yet been written.

Too bad. While it's not likely to hit the best-seller list any time soon, it's a riveting tale and well worth a book: “The Watering of Kiryas Joel.” As for the subtitle, call it “A Pipeline into the Future.”

Chapter One would begin as thousands of GIs return home from war in the late 1940s, father children in the 1950s - and enjoy Eisenhower-era prosperity by opening the spigots at volumes then unprecedented.

In the next installment, a long and crippling drought strikes in 1960. It's a potential wake-up call and a harbinger of things to come. Few lessons are learned, however, and today, it is barely a footnote in local history.

Chapter Three would document how the strains on the water-supply system first surface during a population boom stoked by the mass flight from crime-ridden New York City that took place in the 1960s and 1970s.

RELATED STORY: The Chronology of a pipeline

Over the next pages, the explosive growth of Kiryas Joel in the 1980s and 1990s - and an accompanying loss of the agrarian economy amid sprawl-and-mall development - amplifies the pressures on the aquifer.

At this point, the question must be asked: Why do we need such a long journey back into the past?

The answer, quite simply, is that Kiryas Joel takes the long view deep into the future.

The village fathers plan long-term for citizens yet unborn - the next marriage, the next child, the next housing stock, the next annexation, the next wellhead to source water for families and homes. So in order to chart where they're going, you have to understand where they've been.

Crisis and opportunityAnd that takes us up to 1999, when another severe drought walloped Orange County.

A water emergency was declared, water tables bottomed out at levels to which they'd last fallen back in 1960, and groundwater wells once again ran dry, requiring 100-plus feet of deepening overnight.

That was when Kiryas Joel, almost alone among its regional neighbors, decided to take aggressive action.

It was determined to minimize future risk, identify new sources of water for purchase, finance its investment, navigate a governmental regulatory labyrinth - and build the costly infrastructure needed to tap a supply that would fuel and sustain its growth far into the future.

There was another motivator: Kiryas Joel, which is Hebrew for “City of Joel,” was the vision of Grand Rebbe Joel Teitelbaum, the founder and spiritual leader of the modern Satmar Hasidic movement who died in 1979, just two years after the incorporation of the village that bears his name.

His dream was that the remnant of Hungarian and Romanian Jewry that had survived Nazi annihilation would rebuild and repopulate in a land of faith outside of Brooklyn, away from big-city temptations, in a place where they could study Torah and Talmud and enjoy three gifts from God: Prayer, children and water to sustain prayer and children.

Religiosity, and unfettered growth, abide as communal guideposts in KJ to this day.

And so it was that in September 2000, Kiryas Joel proposed the construction of a 13.5-mile long, water-transmission pipeline that would directly link the village to the New York City Catskill Aqueduct supply system to its northeast.

A couple of alternative routes were evaluated, but basically, the line - known as the Catskill Aqueduct Connection Project - would carry city water, which the village would buy, south from the Vails Gate section of the Town of New Windsor, just before the Aqueduct crosses eastbound under the Hudson River.

Hewing almost entirely to the rights-of-way of state and county roads, the water main would twice cross under the New York State Thruway, first to its east side, then to its west side, transverse the Towns of Cornwall and Woodbury, and then snake west, along Ridge Road, to cross into the village perimeter.

A turbo-charged transformationWas there a need for the pipeline? Note theses demographics:

At the time of Rabbi Teitelbaum's death, KJ's population was roughly 2,400.

By 1990, it had soared to 7,347, U.S. Census Bureau data shows.

And when the pipeline project was first proposed in 2000, it had almost doubled, to 13,138.

Now, flash forward 17 years.

North of 23,000 people live in Kiryas Joel today.

Some 5,000-plus Hasids reside elsewhere in the Town of Monroe. Overflow from KJ has spilled south of Route 17. An approved 164-acre annexation is under appeal. A second 507-acre annexation has been proposed. A possible creation of a new Town of North Monroe has been discussed behind closed doors.

Like it or not, all this propulsive growth, accelerated development and expansion of a municipality's political boundaries necessitate vast new water sources. And for KJ, that day has finally arrived:

The first seven-mile stretch of the 13.5-mile pipeline has just been completed and is all but ready to deliver. Workers this month have been quietly testing the pipe's water pressure, probing and sealing potential leaks and excising any bacteria in a cleansing process that is one of the last steps before the water can be deemed drinkable.

A cascade beginsBy early June, villagers will be able to open the spigots and enjoy fresh water from a 9.7-acre wellfield KJ owns along State Route 32 in the Mountainville section of Cornwall, at roughly the mid-point of the pipeline route.

That's just Phase 1 of the project.

KJ says a planned 6.5 mile Phase II will be built next to complete the link from Mountainville to the Catskill Aqueduct, which would become the village's permanent water source, at which point, Mountainville would become a back-up source.

But it's a huge milestone, and it comes after years of litigation, controversy, animosity and bitter battles with its neighbors that show no signs of ending any time soon.

The bottom line is that in just five or six weeks - absent a last-minute court injunction sought by opponents in the latest lawsuit - KJ can tap 612,000 gallons of water per day, or 425 gallons per minute, from the Mountainville Well.

That will allow it to boost supply by a hefty 33 percent, hiking what is called its “total permitted take” from the current 1.93 million gallons per day to a new cap of 2.54 million gallons from all the wells in its system.

A collaboration between God and man“We thank God every day that we were able to sustain and persevere over the heat from the naysayers, and that we finally were able to push this vital project to the finish line, so that the dream of Rabbi Joel may continue to flourish,” said Gedalye Szegedin, who is both village administrator and village clerk of KJ, positions he's held since 1991.

In a dozen-plus email interviews over a two-week period, Szegedin, the architect of the pipeline project, told of the primacy of providing a “quality supply of safe drinking water to a growing community” in the face of “political pushback, multiple lawsuits and all kinds of attacks.”

He also highlighted the village's resolve: “We will never quit fighting to serve our residents with safe drinking water or any other commodity needed for our survival.”

Indeed, the pipeline is expect to remain a battlefield for some time to come.

“It's a textbook example of bad planning,” said Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus, whose predecessors filed the first lawsuit again the project in 2004.

“Anywhere else in America, it would have been a regional pipeline and everyone along the line would have been allowed to tie in,” he added. “Instead, KJ controls the spigot and everyone else has to sit back and watch as this pipeline goes through their communities.”

Neuhaus said consideration should have been given to “condemnation” of the pipeline or other legal options so that neighboring municipalities could benefit. But he acknowledges it's probably too late now to pursue such remedies.

The link to Mountainville is just the beginning. “The final design, bidding and construction of Phase II is moving to high speed as soon as Phase I is done,” Szegedin said.

But project opponents, despite the dismissal of numerous past lawsuits, are still trying to stop KJ from drawing from the Mountainville well.

On April 11, the village and town of Woodbury and Cornwall, along with several nonprofits, asked a judge for an injunction to keep the tap shut as they appeal a 2016 ruling throwing out their suit to annul KJ's water-withdrawal permit. A hearing is set for Monday, May 1.

The next flashpointPipeline foes have also focused on Phase II, in which Aqueduct tap-and-connection facilities would be built in Vails Gate to access city water.

Assemblyman James Skoufis, a Woodbury Democrat and annexation opponent, points out that KJ hasn't yet secured a final green light from the city's Department of Environmental Protection to tap into its water supply.

“How can you be laying miles of pipe - tearing up roads, tearing up the environment, spending tens of millions of dollars - for a pipeline that's been in the works for years to connect to something you don't even have city permission to connect to?” Skoufis asked.

DEP spokesman Adam Bosch said that any town, village, city or water district situated in counties where the city maintains its water infrastructure has an “absolute right to tap New York City's supply.” That right, spelled out in state legislation passed in 1905, includes municipalities in Orange County.

But Bosch said there are three caveats: The community has to pay to build the infrastructure, purchase water at a rate determined annually by the New York City Water Board and obtain DEP plan approval to ensure the tap is engineered properly.

Szegedin said the village will comply with all the city's conditions, as it exercises its “as-of-right permission” to tap into the Catskill system.

“We will absolutely connect KJ to the NYC water system, for sure 100 percent, without any doubt, with the help of God,” he said.

Meanwhile, the pipeline project price tag has skyrocketed. Pegged at around $29 million back in 2004, the cost today is estimated at just below $60 million.

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