MPs have said budget cuts have put pressure on waterways maintenance
The body which looks after the UK's 2,200 miles of canals and rivers has proposed becoming a charitable trust to help secure its future.
British Waterways wants to leave state control to encourage more involvement from the community and voluntary sector, and a wider funding base.
It currently receives government funding of more than £60m per year.
But with the maintenance cost of waterways rising, it wants to explore different ways of preserving them.
Chairman Tony Hales said waterways played a key role in alleviating flooding, providing habitat for wildlife and even generating electricity.
But he said greater certainty and flexibility in funding was required, with communities having more say over the way cash is spent.
"The waterways have had an extraordinary rebirth since the middle of the last century when all but a handful of enthusiasts viewed them as dangerous ditches," said Mr Hales.
Network used by 32,000 boats - more than at the industrial revolution's height
Anglers, cyclists, walkers and nature lovers make more than 260 million annual visits
Contains more than 1,000 wildlife conservation sites
Around 200 miles of new or restored waterway opened in the past decade
Source: British Waterways
"Today they offer some of Britain's greenest recreational facilities, they are breathing new life into scores of waterside towns and cities, and they collectively comprise one of the most important examples of industrial heritage anywhere in the world.
"For this to continue, we need to look at a new model of ownership."
Three years ago, the government cut British Waterways' funding by £7m, causing delays to long-term improvement projects.
It also put the maintenance of UK rivers and canals under "considerable pressure", according to a committee of MPs who identified a communications breakdown between ministers and British Waterways.
The body, which employs 1,800 workers, including lock-keepers, wants to become a third sector, public interest company or trust, in the next decade.
It suggests that its annual funding could be changed into new government contracts.
"The public sector model has arguably seen the waterways through difficult times and enabled their re-birth in the last decade," said Mr Hales.
"We strongly believe that a new voluntary sector model is the next logical step for us."
The body will spend six months consulting both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Scottish government, which funds its work north of the border, along with local authorities, waterway users groups and voluntary organisations on the plans.