This paper explores environmental water management as a social process of navigating conflicting interests through a distributive justice lens. Environmental water management can achieve substantial ecological outcomes and address ongoing river degradation caused by past management and climate change; however it also causes specific and substantial burdens and benefits to different groups of stakeholders. Given that in most developed countries the majority of land is under private tenure, environmental watering must have active cooperation of private landholders to achieve its ecological outcomes and thus it must effectively deal with an array of vested interests. Australia's reforms aimed at reallocating water from production to the environment have resulted in significant considerable volumes of environmental water.In the state of New South Wales, this water is managed by the state and national governments with the help of five Environmental Water Advisory Groups made up of a wide representation of interests. In this paper, we explore the perceptions of environmental, government, irrigator and grazing representatives, which demonstrate conflicting principles over how environmental water should be distributed. We detail how government water managers reconcile competing distributive principles of equity (ensuring that no one is disproportionally affected or benefits unduly), need (achieving environmental outcomes) and efficiency (prioritizing operational feasibility) in order to maintain the social acceptability of environmental water.