In this paper, we examine small hydropower trends in Chile through institutional and ethnographic research and we reflect on what lessons this case provides for scholarship on the water-energy nexus. Contrary to the tendency in water-energy nexus scholarship to advocate for further integration of water and energy management, this paper explains an approach to investigation that answers recent calls to politicize the nexus by examining inequity and inefficiency. Methodologically, we trace institutional surprises in water-energy nexus interactions. Internationally, small hydropower growth is part of a boom in renewable energy, yet in Chile the reality is more complicated. We examine the paradoxical trend of hundreds of stalled small hydropower projects that remain incomplete throughout central to southern Chile. These stalled projects indicate unexpected behavior in how water, energy, and environmental institutions interact, in Mapuche Indigenous territory specifically where projects are highly conflictive. A fantastical materialism is also visible. Government and private sector ambitions of organized, massive, and lucrative small hydropower development are resulting in unruly material realities, yet over time capital finds an unforeseen way to produce value. In this case, water rights are being sold with approved environmental impact studies on the water market. Overall, our findings challenge the assumptions that commodifying water can be done equitably and efficiently for all parties involved, in particular for the Mapuche people. Findings also question hydropower’s future viability as a sustainable renewable energy endeavor in a market-driven system.