Maori leaders have laughed off Northland Regional Council claims that the way water is managed in the region is working well, amid councillor fears iwi will soon be granted special rights to fresh water.
Northland Regional Council held an emergency meeting on Friday, establishing its stance against Maori fresh water rights, in what one councillor termed "the next foreshore and seabed debate".
Councillor John Bain said the worst-case scenario was the "commercialisation of water by any special interest group".
Throughout 2015, central government had been in talks with iwi leaders about fresh water reform, with an announcement on the matter expected on Waitangi Day.
NRC had now issued a pre-emptive strike, asking the Government to reaffirm through law councils' right to administer and manage fresh water resources.
Whangarei hapu spokesman Millan Ruka, whose Poroti rohe is plundered by multiple water-take consents, chuckled when he heard of councillors' fears of "commercialisation".
"Aren't you already letting special interest groups commercialise the water?" Mr Ruka, of Te Uriroroi, said.
Mr Ruka said bores in the Waipao Stream, which the Poroti Springs fed, were over-taxed through council consents allowing Whangarei District Council and the commercial Maungatapere Irrigation Scheme to draw 19,500cu m each day. A planned and consented commercial water bottling plant would also draw the springs' water.
"We own 90 per cent of the [land around] Waipao Stream, and yet we don't have any rights to our water," Mr Ruka said.
"Why on earth do we have to participate in an RMA process for our own water?"
NRC's argument that "no one owns the water" did not hold up when commercial companies held 35-year consents allowing them to take and sell the water, Mr Ruka said.
Lawyer Felix Geiringer had represented Maori in water rights cases and said Poroti Spring was just one example of local government, under the guise of the Resource Management Act, "mismanaging water all over the country".
"The proportion of water for domestic use is tiny, so obviously the commercialisation water is enormous - factories use huge amount, farmers and bottling plants ... Because who is represented on local councils? It's local business interests," Mr Geiringer said, adding that Maori were woefully under-represented on councils.
NRC chairman Bill Shepherd said a paper put to Cabinet early last year indicated the Government's position was that no one owned fresh water.