In late 2010, ‘drought-breaking’ rains in southeastern Australia led the Victorian government to relax its restrictions on suburban water use. But are such ad hoc approaches to water management sustainable in the long-term? In this article, the responses of Western Australian water managers to predictions of a drier future for the southwest of WA in the late 1980s are presented as a ‘pragmatic precedents’ to guide decision-makers in the twenty-first century. This article considers the way historical analyses affect water management, challenging policymakers to not only look forward, but also back to the lessons of the past in order to devise a sustained and measured response to water challenges. Although a lack of certainty about the implications of anthropogenic climate change has been blamed for delays in policymaker’s adoption of adaptation and mitigation strategies, this article shows that environmental decision-making under uncertain conditions is possible if a ‘long view backward’ is valued and taken into account. This article has been peer-reviewed.