Perceptions of a salinity ‘crisis’ in Australia around 2000 resulted in the establishment of a major national program that aimed to prevent, stabilize, and reverse trends in salinity. The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality allocated A$1.4 billion of public funds to 1700 projects over 7 years. Here, we assess the performance of the program in relation to 12 features that we propose as being essential for programs that aim to address complex environmental problems. The features include use of technical information to guide investment prioritization, use of socio-economic information, effective integration of information for prioritization, selection of appropriate targets, choice of appropriate policy mechanisms, and provision of incentives and support to environmental managers to pursue environmental outcomes cost effectively. Our assessment reinforces findings from a number of public reviews that found serious weaknesses in the program. Overall, with a few exceptions, projects under the National Action Plan generated few worthwhile salinity mitigation benefits and will have little enduring benefit. This was readily foreseeable given attention to the scientific and economic knowledge of salinity available at the time the program was developed.