Water District features
Bacacay's magnificent comeback
By Yddet Osonyer

While the contemporary annals of the country's provincial water utilities development and management have been pockmarked by stories of rise from obscurity and of great comebacks, very few among the ranks of small water districts could rival or parallel that achieved in Bacacay, a seaside town in Albay flanked by the bustling Legaspi and fast -emerging Tabaco cities.

So impressive has been Bacacay Water District's comeback and subsequent steady development that the Local Water Utilities Administration (LWUA) had been prompted to confer upon it the honor as the Outstanding Water District in the small water district category nationwide for CY 2003.

Significantly, it was an engineer/ management advisor from LWUA assuming the role of a "big brother" in takeover manager capacity who with a local understudy made the turn-around possible for a water district that erstwhile had been around but seemed to be going nowhere, worst seemed to be going further down.

An old-timer with not much to show

Surely, the Bacacay Water District is already an old-timer having been established in July of 1980 and given its CCC by LWUA in October of the same year.

Like other just-starting water districts, the BWD inherited its water system from the local government consisting of a spring source located some 3.5 kilometers in an elevated place southwest of the town proper, some transmission and distribution lines and around 200 service connections generally found in the poblacion and the barangay of Hindi.
Through the efforts of BWD's first general manager Rodolfo Bermas, the water district was able to effect some improvements in the system and increase the service connections to around 600 and barangays covered by the system through a series of mini loan assistance from LWUA between the years 1981-89.

The first major project of BWD was for the interim improvement of its water system implemented in 1990 with a P8.64 million loan and technical assistance from LWUA. It involved the construction of the Bonga Spring intake box, installation of additional transmission and distribution lines, pressure break chamber, disinfection facilities and additional metered service connections.

The twin wrath and the start of the spiral

But while the start of the new decade had been marked by this major improvement project, for most part, the 90s proved to be a difficult, problematic period for GM Bermas, the BWD as a whole and the water concessionaires in Bacacay. But the problematic situation was not limited only to Bacacay but also other places in the province dependent upon the benevolence of Daragang Magayon ( Mayon Volcano ) for the continuity of their potable water supply.

Unfortunately, during this period, she was in one of her violent spells, spewing destruction upon the communities nestled below her and disarranging the natural formations in her wake resulting to springs drying up. Such happened to BWD's lone spring source resulting to dire water shortages in the town for a long period of time before , during and after each eruption.

As if the intermittent wrath of the Lady Dragon was not enough, a Terrible Child-El Nino- also came a visiting during the period making the water supply situation even direr for Bacacay particularly and for most of the communities in Albay and the Bicol region dependent on surface water in general.

The force majeure and the weaknesses of the water system, i.e. high non-revenue water, illegal connections and low revenue collections seemed to conspire against the water district resulting to BWD's failure to service its debt obligations to LWUA with its loan arrearages reaching 29 months and growing to more than P2 million.
LWUA was left with no other recourse but to takeover the management of the BWD in early 1999.

Enter the big brother: The comeback

In February of 1999, LWUA designated engineer Ajerco C. Comia as interim general manager of BWD with the mission to manage and steer the water district in settling its P2.1 million arrears, improve the institutional development status and put order and direction to its operations.

Jerry, as IGM Comia is fondly called, hit the ground running. As the LWUA management advisor during the period preceding the takeover, he already had an understanding of the problems at hand and the idea of what to do to improve the situation. He understood the change must start from within the organization, initially the personnel and the system. He asked for and got support from LWUA in training and guidance of BWD personnel in proper performance of their work and the institution of systems that would make their work easier and more effective. He also instituted changes to fast track development operations and assisted the BWD regular board of directors in the formulation of much-needed policies particularly in curbing illegal connections, reducing NRW and increasing revenues. He also instituted public relations and promotional gimmicks to gain public support and cooperation particularly in the prompt payment of their water bills.

But IGM Jerry also understood that whatever gains he may accomplish will all be for naught if there will be no one from among the existing staff who could step up and continue with the improvements and changes being instituted. So, in the process of fulfilling his mission as takeover or interim GM, he was also training the next regular general manager. He took under his wing for understudy an unassuming lady by the name of Alma Calleja who had at the time been with BWD only for about a baker's dozen years but who had shown promise in steadily rising from the ranks. With IGM Jerry steering and his ward, Alma supporting him all the way, the task of putting BWD back in shape and chugging forward became less arduous.

By the end of 3rd quarter of 2001, BWD's arrearages had practically been wiped out and so much improvements had been accomplished ( see table ) prompting LWUA to consider turning over the management function back to the BWD.
On Nov.1, 2001, Alma Calleja was appointed BWD regular general manager following LWUA's turnover of the management functions to the water district.

The ward takes over

There may be other BWD staffers more senior in terms of age and in years of service in the water district and indeed, there may be other qualified aspirants from outside, but LWUA and the BWD board could not have picked a better choice than Alma Calleja as regular GM.

Coming from a respected family in Bacacay, Alma graduated with a BS degree in Accountancy at the Aquinas University in Legaspi City and took up masteral units in management at the Daniel B. Pena Foundation in Tabaco City. After a two-year working stint at the office of the Bacacay municipal mayor, Alma joined BWD in 1987 and learned the ropes first as billing and posting clerk then later as office collector. Demonstrating hardwork and dilligence, he was promoted to the position of bookkeeper and later, personnel officer, earning the admiration and respect of many of his co-workers.

Still single, GM Alma regards the water district as his second family and put much of her energy and concentration in seeing that everything's well with the organization and its employees. The office staff being mostly ladies, she makes it a point that they are very much at ease working in her presence and company. "Parang magkakapatid pero siyempre ang trabaho pa rin ang pinakasentro ng aming samahan," Alma said adding that in the end it will still be individual and group performance of the employees that matter. She also believes that the water district is only as strong as its weakest link hence she takes efforts to reinforce and strengthen staff development.

Perhaps, that finally clinched her choice as understudy and later on as regular GM.
But then it's not only the BWD board, IGM Jerry who has since assumed as 6th board member and GM Alma that made the comeback possible and sustained it. Much of the credit also belonged to the employees.

Sustaining the gains

In a latest evaluation report submitted to his LWUA superiors, Engr. Comia took special note of the water district staff: " The water district has 9 regular and 5 casual employees capable of handling their job and supportive of the ideas of the general manager. The staff can perform their assigned tasks even with the minimum supervision and most of them are reliable in their respective positions, some having attended related training seminars."

On the GM, he noted: "All employees directly report and are accountable to the General manager since the WD has no division heads yet. ( Nonetheless), She has the capability to manage the WD and steer it to attain financial viability. She is competent and has shown dedication to her job that gained the respect and support from her staff. Under her term, the WD was awarded last year as the outstanding water district nationwide for the small water district category."

Of the BWD board and the board-management relationship,Engr. Comia noted: " The Board is complete and properly represented by the various sectors. The Board is generally active in discharging its function as policy-makers though in need of seminar/training to enhance their competence. The Chairman, Atty. Roberto Cabrido is very able and most knowledgable as policy-maker. The Board-Management relationship is good-they enjoy the trust and support of each other. The Board has the support of the Mayor."

Engr. Comia confirmed what has been obvious the past almost three years since the end of the interim takeover: The BWD has sustained what he has started: 1,647 total service connections, 97 percent collection efficiency, 1:0.545 operating ratio, 1:2.500 current ratio, current in debt service, reserves of P293,282.

Even the goodwill of the public has been retained with the approval in a public hearing of the new minimum charge of P140.00, up from P120.00, which has increased the WD billing to P485,543 for the month of June 2004 compared with the previous P386,763.00 average monthly billing in 2003. Incidentally, GM Alma noted that the said public hearing which was also a project presentation for the proposed P15-million improvement project of BWD was the most-attended by the residents in years, signifying the local's renewed interest and commitment to the development of their water supply.

Engr. Comia in his evaluation report on the BWD over-all operations noted: " The WD is operating profitably. Its net income of P285,707 in 2002 grew remarkably to P673,202 in 2003 for an increase of 135 percent. The growth continued in the first six months of 2004 and the WD has already posted a net of P363,783. The WD is expected to further increase its net this year with the implementation of the new minimum charge of P140. effective April 2004."
But the Bacacay Water District is not about to rest on these past and current accomplishments.

Not with the Daragang Magayon ( Mayon volcano) and the pesky El Nino presenting constant threats to the water district's main water supply source.

According to GM Alma, the WD production is enough to serve the present demand however low water pressure in upper Bgy. Hindi exists during summer season and when Mayon volcano shows sign of eruption. The former high NRW was reduced during the interim management takeover and has been kept to about 20 percent. The proposed P15 million expansion project will solve the low water pressure problem in upper Bgy. Hindi, serve five additional barangays and further improve the BWD level of service.

The already approved P15 million expansion project is just awaiting issuance of the environmental compliance clearance from DENR pending its full implementation perhaps late this year or early next year. The project will involve the drilling of one well to augment the present spring source and the installation of additional transmission and distribution lines and service connections.

With this development, former IGM Jerry Comia said, he won't be surprised if Bacacay makes another comeback next year -as still the country's outstanding water district in its category.