The options cities face in supplying safe water and disposing of wastes are affected by the long-lasting effects of initial network choices. This article outlines this path-dependent process through case studies of Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. Each city was constrained by early choices that limited options as new challenges emerged. Each city soon outgrew natural water supplies, with differences in urban growth rates, governance structures, local skills and social aspirations impacting on the networks built. The quality of Australia’s urban water and sewerage was comparatively high by 1900, but the full benefit on living standards had not reached all residents.