A reform process is underway in the Murray–Darling Basin (Australia) to reallocate water from irrigated agriculture to the environment. The scale, complexity and politics of the recovery process have prompted interest in the role of local environmental water managers within state and federal governance arrangements. This paper examines prospects for a local role in environmental water management through the lens of the subsidiarity principle: the notion that effective governance devolves tasks to the lowest level with the political authority and capacity to perform them. The article defines and applies the subsidiarity principle to assess evolving federal–state–local interactions in environmental water policy, planning and practice in Australia's Murray–Darling River. In this context, subsidiarity is useful to clarify institutional roles and their coordination at a whole-of-river level. This analysis demonstrates opportunities for a local role in information gathering, innovation and operational flexibility to respond to opportunities in real time. It identifies significant limits to local action in upstream–downstream tradeoffs, economies of scale, capacity building and cost sharing for basin-wide or national interests, and accountability mechanisms to balance local, state and national rights and responsibilities. Lessons are relevant internationally for regions confronting complex allocation tradeoffs between human and environmental needs within multi-jurisdictional federal systems.