After a heavy rain, the Inner Harbor's roiled waters have all the aesthetic charm of an open sewer because that's essentially what it becomes. Intentional discharges of raw sewage into the Jones Falls which empties into the harbor have become so common that a recent study totals the outflow at about 337 million gallons over the last five years.

That leaves the Inner Harbor not only full of human waste but with an attendant concentration of bacteria and pathogens so high (up to 400 times safe levels) that at least one health expert advocates warning signs be posted along the waterfront. Kayakers take their health in their own hands when they make contact with the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River after a major storm. And then there are the sewage backups that start showing up in residential basements when intentional overflows aren't enough to drain clogged municipal lines.


Yet in a matter of days, Baltimore will have officially blown the 13-year-old deadline for cleaning up its failing sewage system under a federal consent decree. It is a sad legacy. Despite raising water and sewer rates for city residents on multiple occasions and collecting about $2 billion from ratepayers, the city will fail to live up to the court-ordered agreement officials including then-Mayor Martin O'Malley signed in 2002.

A new Abell Foundation-funded report released this week by the Environmental Integrity Project lays out much of the damage this failure has done to the environment and to homeowners. It is one thing for the city to plead poverty — its aging infrastructure is certainly a longstanding and costly problem that is hardly unique among older cities, as there are dozens working under similar decrees. But it's quite another to worsen those circumstances with foot-dragging and a general lack of transparency. Simply researching how much sewage has been discharged into local waters requires considerable investigative skills.

Tom Pelton, one of the report's authors and a former reporter for The Sun, estimates that Baltimore has completed about half the needed work and has not even begun biggest project — a system to pump out and store the wastewater contained in a sunken conduit under the city that has become so badly misaligned with the rest of the system that it results in a continuous 10-mile rolling sewage backup. He argues that this obstruction should have been cleared a decade ago when Baltimore was haggling with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the scope of the project.

Even now, city officials won't offer specifics about the extension beyond January 1 they are seeking from federal and state regulators, the timetable they envision for completion or how much it will cost. Such confidential negotiations may be common, but they represent another example of how difficult it is for the public to understand what's going on with Baltimore's failing sewage system. It simply doesn't inspire much confidence, particularly after 13 years.

Environmental groups are understandably frustrated and want to see the city's feet held to the fire, and we are inclined to agree. Not only should contracts and reports of discharges be readily available for the public to inspect online but the extension should not run past 2020. Further, there ought to be a third-party monitor assigned to keep the court and the general public advised about the city's progress — a role the EPA has failed at rather miserably.

The Inner Harbor remains too important an economic asset to Baltimore for it to be treated so indifferently as to become a health hazard. And the city's sewage woes give ammunition to polluters elsewhere in Maryland who seek to similarly drag their feet when it comes time to protecting the health of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. How can Baltimoreans seek further sacrifices from Eastern Shore poultry farmers to keep manure from polluting local waters, for instance, when human waste is pouring into the Patapsco River untreated?

There may be any number of extenuating circumstances that help explain the project's high cost and perhaps even the delays. But there is no acceptable explanation for why City Hall can't be more forthcoming about what's going on. Promises of a swimmable, fishable Inner Harbor in four years not only look doubtful, they appear to be a veritable pipe dream.