© IWA Publishing 2014. Australia represents a global proving ground for effective riparian climate change adaptation due to its scale and diversity, extreme variation in runoff and degrees of aridity. An array of autonomous riparian zone (RZ) management adaptations have emerged in Australia that have captivated the international community but have yet to be effectively delivered. This paper reviews government policies, governance structures, the application of market-based instruments and voluntary measures to ask why Australia has not achieved more. We find promise in: the resurgence of application of indigenous knowledge and engagement in management; understanding of the catalytic roles of women, means of better engaging individuals, strengthening of social networks and fostering leadership in rural communities; transferring of urban resources to their rural hinterlands; better engaging communities through campaigns, businesses and political leaders; and strategic research programmes. These findings have application in other difficult hydrologies. We contend that government and market-based programmes are underpinned by voluntary and cultural institutions, and that these require strengthening through fostering of an ethic to conserve RZs as the core element of the biophysical and human landscape. It calls for stakeholders to adopt a common vision for conservation of RZs that can sustain implementation through institutional changes.