Managing rivers and sharing their benefits is largely dependent on stakeholder values and knowledge, expressed through policy, governance and institutions. Adaptive management is essentially a social learning process, which can provide a tool to navigate the 'wickedness' of contemporary social-ecological challenges. This research applied an interpretive, qualitative approach to examine government intentions for adaptive management, as expressed in water policy documents, and practitioner experiences of learning through adaptive management in a case study of water management in the Lachlan catchment, Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. Data were created from content analysis of government water policy documents and interviews with key water managing and policy stakeholders. Interview participants attached divergent meanings to the concept of adaptive management. Five different 'styles' of adaptive management were found to coexist in the Lachlan catchment, which were associated with different levels of learning. While some learning was ad hoc, there was also promising evidence of more active adaptive management of environmental flows, which was resulting in higher-level learning. The findings highlight a disconnect between how adaptive management is understood in the academic literature, by practitioners, and how it is portrayed in Australian water policy, which is restricting opportunities for higher-level learning. Transformative learning was found to occur in response to crisis, rather than being linked to an intentional learning process.