Abstract There is growing consensus worldwide against the conventional centralised approach to water management, and a ‘soft path’ for water management has emerged as a sustainable alternative. A ‘soft path’ for water management emphasizes the optimization of end-use efficiency, small-scaled management systems, incorporates fit-for-purpose water use, and recommends the use of diverse, locally appropriate and commonly decentralised infrastructures. However, large-scale desalination plants are currently being built for almost all metropolitan centres in Australia to ensure water supply security. Unlike ‘soft path’ for water management, large-scale desalination plants embody the traditional urban water supply approach. In spite of knowledge and values relating to the water cycle having shifted towards ‘soft path’, the old organisational framework is believed to be hindering its adoption. Perhaps, therefore major water utilities in recent times have opted for the ideologically easier option of large-scale desalination conforming to the existing framework, instead of choosing a ‘soft path’ for water management with potential for decentralised management. This paper critically reviews the urban water management direction in metropolitan Australia and puts forward a ‘gradualist approach’. It incorporates a comprehensive non-potable water reuse program necessary to build the familiarity and trust in water reuse, as a first step before introducing the idea of potable reuse.

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