Whither the well?
Court case over Cornwall water supply highlights a growing chasm between Kiryas Joel and its neighbors

Source: Village of Kiryas Joel This file photo shows the Village of Kiryas Joel's water tank at the Mountainville well in Cornwall. It's connected to the village by the first seven miles of a planned 13.5-mile pipeline - but it's not operational yet because an appeals court nixed KJ's request to open the spigot.

By Douglas Feiden
KIRYAS JOEL — There’s not much that Gedalye Szegedin, the village administrator of Kiryas Joel, and David Sutz, the Town of Woodbury supervisor, can agree on. In fact, their respective municipalities have a long history of suing each other.
But there is one point upon which the two leaders do concur: Each foresees the possibility of a genuine disaster striking their separate domains over the next few months.
Szegedin said that KJ will be facing a “severe, man-made humanitarian crisis” this summer unless it can tap a well it owns in the Mountainville section of Cornwall to bring water into the village.
Sutz said that Woodbury harbors the “real fear” that its municipal and residential wells could run dry this summer if KJ is allowed to open the spigot and connect its Cornwall well to the village via pipeline.
And that in a nutshell sums up the gulf between ever-expanding KJ and the surrounding communities that feel threatened by its growth. It’s a rift that has long defined their relationship, and it all boils down to the most precious natural resource they both share – the water.
The issue came to a head, again, on June 21 when the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division refused to allow KJ to turn the tap, which would have sent 612,000 gallons of fresh water a day – or 425 gallons per minute – cascading into the village.
Its ruling came in response to two cases filed by several municipalities, nonprofits and property owners who are pursuing an appeal of a 2016 court ruling that tossed out their original lawsuit, which sought to annul the village’s 2015 state-granted, water-withdrawal permit.
A looming calamity?The four-judge appeals panel affirmed a preliminary injunction it granted on May 18 barring KJ, at least temporarily, from drawing water from the wellhead. Its decision forestalls any pumping until the twin legal challenges to KJ’s use of the Cornwall water supply are resolved.
Arguing that it’s at risk of a calamitous water shortage, the village asked the court to scrap the injunction and let it open the faucet.
The judges nixed the request, but said they would fast-track the case for resolution in September.
Multiple litigants, including the village and town of Woodbury and the Town of Cornwall and the Village of Cornwall-on-Hudson, had argued that “irreversible environmental damage” would befall trout-spawning Woodbury Creek – and a large network of wells could run dry – if KJ were permitted to “divert” such immense volumes of water.
Until its plans were frozen by the court, the village was days away from opening the first phase of its planned $60 million, 13.5-mile pipeline, which will eventually connect it to New York City’s Catskill Aqueduct.
The Cornwall well is seven miles northeast of the village, at the halfway point of the pipeline, and it has become a lightning rod for critics of KJ’s ambitious housing-and-population development plans.
Supply from the wellhead was expected to ease demand, slake thirst and spur additional construction for KJ’s nearly 25,000 residents as a punishing summer gets underway.
Local leaders duelInstead, a “severe man-made humanitarian crisis has been intentionally forced upon us by the politicians of Woodbury and Cornwall,” said Szegedin, who also serves as village clerk.
“KJ is being forced to continue to truck in hundreds of trailer loads of water on a regular basis, clogging streets and highways and endangering pedestrians – and the hot summer hasn’t even started in full,” he said in an email interview.
“Can you imagine thousands of families being without water in the summer and an entire community of 25,000 residents relying on trucked water at a time when we have a water system for which we paid $35 million sitting idle?” Szegedin added.
“We spent $35 million, we have a ready water system fully built and tested, but we can’t switch it on. Instead we have to rely on tractor trailers to bring us our water.”
Sutz has a very different take: If and when KJ pulls that switch and starts drawing its main source of supply from the same water tables used by its neighboring communities, the supply available to everybody else will inevitably be diminished, he argued.
“You can’t draw off one without negatively impacting the other,” he said.
“What if a private homeowner’s well goes dry? What if a municipality’s well runs dry?” Sutz asked. “There’s a real fear that could happen this summer. There’s supposed to be mitigation and compensation in case that happens, but it has never been clearly spelled out.”
The dispute has left, well, a reservoir of bitterness between the parties in the litigation:
“KJ should just finish building the pipeline, take the water from New York City – and leave the municipalities alone,” Sutz said.
Said Szegedin: “Let the record reflect the pain and suffering of KJ residents, caused by elected officials in this county, who are being deprived of their drinking water."