Member’s Corner: Spotlight on John Aulbach of Virginia

Welcome to the Member’s Corner – it has been awhile since we’ve done an article in the Weekly Update to introduce and share information about your fellow state drinking water program administrators. John Aulbach of Virginia has graciously volunteered to help us restart this effort. Please let us know if you’d like to “volunteer” for an interview to be included in a future issue.

John AulbachJohn Aulbach has been the Director of the Office of Drinking Water (ODW) for the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) since September 2012. The ODW Director position has provided John with the opportunity to challenge himself in a professional capstone career position and to establish close working relationships with other VDH offices who share broad common goals to protect the public health of all Virginia citizens. As the ODW Director, John also represents the Health Commissioner on the Board for Waterworks and Wastewater Works Operators and Onsite Sewage System Professionals, and the Virginia Resources Authority Board, and has actively represented VDH as a member of various National Sanitation Foundation committees.

John started working with the Virginia Department of Health in 1984 and invested his career in protecting the public health of Virginian’s through several different job roles. From 2003 to 2012, he served as an Environmental Engineering Consultant within the Office of Environmental Health Services where he worked to advance the regulations, policies, and design options for alternative onsite sewage systems, as well as provide direct consultation to well drillers and home owners regarding private well development and water quality. At one point, John also worked with private homeowners on their water and wastewater needs, which was a fulfilling opportunity outside of the normal regulatory program approach. This outside perspective also created a platform for using his knowledge to shape a vision for the Virginia Office of Drinking Water.

John received a BS degree in Civil Engineering from the Virginia Military Institute, an MS degree in Environmental Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In addition, John served in the military for 30 years and retired as a Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. He held command and staff positions and completed his service with assignments as the Comptroller and Director of Individual Training for the 80th Training Command. He deployed to Iraq from 2005–2006, where he commanded a 40 man combat advisory team embedded with an Iraqi Light Infantry Brigade.

When we asked John about the most interesting aspect of his job as the ODW Director, he noted that regulation development has been interesting as well as challenging, when considering how to advance programs while minimizing resource impacts. He also shared that the ODW is partnering with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and other stakeholders to review the existing management and permitting processes for the state’s groundwater management areas. For one particular aquifer that is being depleted and adversely impacted by saltwater intrusion, the DEQ established the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area to allocate and protect it as an important drinking water source. Additionally, the ODW is beginning to evaluate aquifer storage and recovery using reclaimed and highly treated wastewater injection, alternative sources of supplies, alternative management methods, conservation, and reuse.

When we asked John about the funniest thing that happened to him since he took the Director position, he relayed a story about attempting to find an appropriate response to a State Delegate during a Committee Hearing who jokingly asked “Is it safe for my dog to drink from the toilet?” Before he could respond, another Delegate offered appropriate advice to remember where the dog is drinking from the next time he licks your face. With that said, John offered that in his professional opinion this was a personal matter for the Delegate and his dog to resolve and was not subject to state regulation. 

Regarding his vision for ODW, John noted that he believes that Virginia is becoming a leader in the areas of waterworks cyber security and asset management. They have been investing financial and personnel resources to advance these initiatives and to elevate their operational status within the ODW. ODW plans to reshape its technical assistance efforts to focus on capacity development. This will help all waterworks requesting specialized, non-compliance assistance in solving complex water quality/quantity issues using a “STAR” Team to address technical capacity issues with the aid and collaboration of the Virginia Optimization Program (VOP) Committee and the Division of Capacity Development. In addition, John and the ODW staff plan to improve upon their working knowledge of alternative water supplies and reuse options, so that they may be a partner in waterworks decision making processes.

John shared that funding issues continue to be a challenge and are central to all aspects of the ODW program. These have been impacted by recent Federal and state budget cuts. Citizens and elected officials must both understand that the need to sustain and improve funding is vital to maintaining and ensuring public health. It is important for them to acknowledge safe and adequate drinking water supplies as a contributing factor in the assessment of overall healthcare costs.

During the past three years, the ODW has been actively improving and streamlining its operations. This resulted in several layoffs, a consolidation/downsizing of office structure, and significant budget reductions. However, ODW was able to maintain all vital functions without loss of work quality or work product. John highlighted that the ODW needs to continue to review its business model and ensure that they are structured and staffed to meet future regulatory demands. This will require the staff to develop a vision for incorporating future needs into existing programs, and becoming more efficient with normal daily tasks.

When we asked John what he feels most passionately about, he said that he is very concerned with the sustainability of our drinking water programs as we face an ever growing list of challenges. These challenges include emerging contaminants; Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs); moving forward with the creation of new consecutive waterworks resulting from secondary treatment needed (in some cases) for control of Legionella; the declining availability of qualified licensed operators as we see a rapid increase in the retirement of experienced professionals; and the loss of program funding at the state and Federal levels that has now become routine. John also noted that Virginia has experienced a number of contamination events over the past several years that have driven home the importance of source water protection. He is particularly appreciative of the effort ASDWA has undertaken to develop and promote the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act (CWA/SDWA) Toolkit and collaborative efforts to enhance the ability of its members to address source water protection issues with other state agencies.

In his free time, John enjoys spending time with family, and outdoor activities like hunting and golf. He is active in his local Church as a Deacon and enjoys attending Bible Study Fellowship with a group of men on Monday evenings. John has been married to his wife Lisa for 34 years. They have two grown children, Josh and Kara (married to Damien), and are expecting their first grandchild in March 2016. The announcement that his daughter will deliver a son in March and that he will be a grandfather certainly tops his list as the most exciting event of the year.