Waterways are one of the oldest systems for the transportation of cargo and continue to play a vital role in the economies of some countries. Due to societal change, climate change and the ageing of assets, the conditions influencing the effective functioning of these systems seem to be changing. These changing conditions require measures to renew, adapt or renovate these waterway systems. However, measures with the sole aim of improving navigation conditions have encountered resistance, as the general public, and stakeholders in particular, value these waters in many more ways than navigation alone. Therefore, a more inclusive, integrated approach is required, rather than a sectoral one. Addressing these contemporary challenges requires a shift in the traditional waterway authorities' regimes. The aim of this study is to identify elements in the institutional setting where obstacles and opportunities for a more inclusive approach can be found. Two major waterway systems, the American and the Dutch, have been analyzed using the Institutional Analysis and Development framework to reveal those obstacles and opportunities. The results show that horizontal coordination and a low pay-off for an inclusive approach is particularly problematic. The American case also reveals a promising aspect – mandatory local co-funding for federal navigation projects acts as a stimulus for broad stakeholder involvement. Improving horizontal coordination and seizing opportunities for multifunctional development can open pathways to optimize the value of waterway systems for society.