Participatory irrigation, where farmers are given greater control and management responsibility, has been a topic of controversy for many years. Initially seen as a panacea for dealing with weaknesses in state-run irrigation, participatory irrigation has generated mixed results, especially in South Asia. Part of the challenge of understanding the conditions that promote and undermine participatory irrigation is that it is seldom deployed in the same way. For example, irrigation fees collected by farmers are not handled in the same manner, even within a single country. In some instances, a large portion of collected monies is retained locally and in others, only a small portion is kept for local use. In this paper, we use game theory to contemplate how the portion of irrigation fees retained locally might impact on the effectiveness of participatory irrigation. We show that there are multiple plausible equilibria, and that allowing farmers to retain more funds locally might shift behaviour from an uncooperative equilibrium to a cooperative outcome. However, we also find that it is unlikely for there to be a singular fix and we use empirical evidence to demonstrate the conundrums of making participatory irrigation sustainable.