This paper explores the ways water governance adapts to changing social values and political imperatives by examining the case of water policy reforms in Australia’s Murray Darling Basin. Over more than two decades, Australia’s water reforms have explicitly aimed to promote ecological sustainability and economic efficiency, attempting to balance pro-market, micro-economic reforms with broader social and sustainability goals. Despite the formality of Australia’s intergovernmental agreements, water reforms have been expensive and heavily contested, experiencing many implementation challenges. However, water market reforms have generally been regarded as successful, enabling the reallocation of water for environmental and extractive uses, contributing to flexibility and adaptive capacity. Recognising that discursive contestation is central to policy development, the paper documents the way the reform processes have attempted to broker compromises between three competing policy paradigms—national development, economic rationalism and environmentalism. These inherent tensions resulted in prolonged contests for influence over policy directions long after formal statements of policy intent by Governments. Given that climate change is driving the need for water governance reforms, the paper looks to what lessons can be learnt about the redesigns of meta-governance arrangements, including through structured commitments to independent audits and evaluations that can provide the feedback needed for adaptive governance and policy learning.
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