In a south Bozeman neighborhood, city workers lowered a remote-controlled, video-inspection camera down a manhole earlier this week.

When the camera reached the bottom, a worker in a nearby van toggled the joystick on an Xbox controller, propelling the camera into the depths of the sewer. A television screen inside the van showed a live feed of the underground pipes.

In one shot, a stream of water started draining into the sewer main.

“There’s an active one right there,” said John Alston, superintendent of water and sewer operations. “Somebody could have just flushed the toilet or maybe turned on the sink.”

The city has been using underground inspection cameras for years to find and repair cracks in water and sewer pipes. But now, the city plans to buy an even burlier camera – mounted on miniature tractor wheels - to examine and map stormwater pipes.

It’s all part of Bozeman’s plan to treat stormwater.

In the older parts of town, rainwater carrying trash, motor oil, and other pollutants washes off streets, down storm drains and into waterways like Bozeman and Mandeville creeks.

“The fertilizer from people’s lawns, the oil from cars – all those things we do in our modern society, they all end up somewhere,” said Assistant City Manager Chuck Winn. “Unfortunately, they end up in our creeks and streams and that’s what this is all about.”

Bozeman residents will get a notice in their water bills this week, telling them the city plans to charge a new monthly fee to start a public stormwater utility.

On June 11, the Bozeman City Commission will consider adopting the utility and setting rates. Commissioners have already identified it as one of their top priorities.

If approved as proposed by city staff, the city would start charging $1.67 per month for properties with a five-eighths-inch water meter, which makes up 93 percent of the city’s roughly 11,000 water users. The fee would first appear on September’s bill.

That would raise $225,000 in the first year to map and assess the city’s existing stormwater system. Last year, a state audit found the city had an inadequate mapping system and was in violation of its stormwater permit.

The first two years of the city’s stormwater treatment program are aimed at figuring out what the city’s stormwater issues are, Winn said.

That’s where the hefty, video-inspection camera comes in.

High-traction tires will allow the camera to barrel over leaves, trash and other debris in the storm pipes. Once underground, the camera can snake a distance of 1,200 feet.

“We’re going to see a lot of silt. We’re going to see a lot of cracks and we’re going to see tree roots,” said Matt Workman, water and sewer operations foreman. “It’ll give us a very good idea of what kind of shape our stormwater system is in.”

The city will be able to use the information to decide what to do next, superintendent Alston said. Knowing the condition of the pipes allows the city to target its efforts and budget money more wisely, he said.

Indeed, the inspection cameras saved more in one year than they cost.

Camera inspection of the sewer pipes has saved $140,000 a year in city sewage treatment costs, Alston said. Crews have fixed cracks in the pipes, preventing 400,000 gallons of groundwater from seeping into sewer mains each day. Any groundwater that gets through is sent to the wastewater plant and inadvertently treated.

For stormwater, the inspection camera and equipment van with closed circuit television video would cost the city $130,000. It would come from CUES Inc., a “pipe profiling equipment” manufacturer based in Orlando, Fla.

The city has also hired two interns and plans to hire a geographic information systems specialist to map stormwater pipes and outfalls.

The interns have already started walking more than 20 miles of 10 different creeks in town. They’re documenting the points where stormwater is released into waterways. Their data will be compiled in an electronic map.

In addition, the street department has installed blue medallions on storm drains downtown that say, “No dumping. Drains to Bozeman Creek.”

“Part of this is just public awareness - people don’t think about it,” Winn said.

Bozeman isn’t the first city in Montana to charge residents to treat stormwater.

Billings, Helena, Great Falls and Kalispell have stormwater fees. Fees in those cities ranged from 92 cents a month to $5 a month for a single-family home, according to a survey the city of Bozeman commissioned in 2008 as part of a stormwater facility plan.

All major cities in the United States are required to treat stormwater.

“It’s one of the leading causes of impairment to water quality,” said Chris Romankiewicz, compliance inspector for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

In New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle — as those cities have grown — officials have had to figure out how to reroute rain that falls onto the hard surfaces of parking lots, roads and buildings rather than getting soaked up and naturally filtered by grassy soil.

Congress first took aim at stormwater in 1987, broadening the Clean Water Act to include stormwater discharges into U.S. waterways. In 1991, states started issuing discharge permits to large cities, construction sites and industrial sites.

Regulations have started with major cities and are working their way down.

Bozeman is among cities with populations between 10,000 and 50,000 that are now being required to comply with stricter stormwater permits, Romankiewicz said. Bozeman’s last stormwater permit was issued in 2010 and another stricter permit is expected in 2014.

Bozeman requires new construction to build natural filtration systems like retention ponds and wetlands or other mechanical filtration systems to treat stormwater.

And, the city is taking its own steps toward the goal.

When the city finishes rebuilding South Eighth Avenue this fall, the pavement will be tipped slightly to send runoff into a sort of grassy ditch in the median. The ditch will absorb stormwater and will filter the water before it seeps into the underground aquifer.

The old road was designed to simply flush rainwater off the road and out of town.

“We know that model doesn’t fit our environment anymore,” Winn said.

Amanda Ricker can be reached at aricker@dailychronicle.com or 582-2628.

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