Scenarios that portray alternative governance regimes may help support positive change in regions that face persistent water problems. Here, we explore this proposition using the case of Guanacaste, Costa Rica – a region that faces water conflicts and climate change impacts. We developed five alternative scenarios using a formative and participatory approach with system, consistency, and diversity analyses, and visualization. In one scenario, water conflicts surfaced due to opaque governance not accounting for communities that opposed suspect alliances of agencies and developers. In another, challenging contexts overwhelmed fragmented governance causing dissent; which contrasted with another scenario where engaged and vertically accountable governance schemes fit the unique dry tropical regional context and collectively mitigate problems. Governance though, in a return to historical precedent, could alternatively function through top-down schemes to safeguard rural lifestyles; or, operate minimalist schemes that fill only technical roles. The scenario building process facilitated diverse stakeholders to collaboratively explore and articulate alternative water governance schemes. The practical value of the scenarios, however, we found to depend on efforts before and after the study and the successful integration of the scenarios with those efforts. Previous water governance research in the region facilitated partnerships, trust, and active participation in the scenario building process. Timely follow-up demonstrated the real-time application of the scenarios as reference points to help craft strategies that aim to transition current governance toward sustainable alternatives. Governance scenarios, if integrated with a broader transformational planning process, can be a constructive step toward articulating and implementing sustainable water governance schemes. In Guanacaste they helped revitalize coordination and encouraged experimentation through new water governance efforts in the region.