Prime Minister John Key says Maori are "very important stakeholders" in discussions on water allocation, but has stopped short of saying they have ownership rights to water.
Mr Key made the comments yesterday during his first formal visit to a marae as Prime Minister.
He told tribal elders, politicians and others gathered at Pukawa Marae, on the southwestern shores of Lake Taupo, that water allocation was an issue his National-led Government would need to address.
"Maori, without doubt, will be a clear stakeholder when it comes to that debate," he said.
He said he wanted the issue tackled after a first round of reforms to the Resource Management Act was completed between the middle and end of next year because it was in "the strong interests of New Zealand's economic development".
Mr Key told reporters that better allocation of water and tradeable rights were issues that may be considered.
The Crown has yet to concede water ownership to any iwi.
Asked about Maori rights to water, Mr Key said: "That's something ultimately that will need to be debated. They are very important stakeholders and I would have thought they would want to argue pretty strongly that they do have rights."
Professor Ngatata Love, a member of the iwi forum which organised Mr Key's visit to the marae, appeared to back his statement.
"There's no question about who owns the lakebeds, the riverbeds," he said. "We've just got to take the next step, but the fact we can do it in a responsive manner [through dialogue with the Government] is really the key issue."
Labour Treaty settlements spokesman Michael Cullen, who helped negotiate the Waikato River deal with Tainui, said water allocation was a long-term issue best approached in a non-partisan way.
His party would be happy to work with the Government to achieve consensus.
At the marae, Mr Key also promised personal involvement in Treaty negotiations, saying he was looking at moving the Office of Treaty Settlements into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
The Government wanted to ensure progress on Treaty negotiations continued because they were a crucial step to ensuring economic independence for Maori.
As significant participants in fisheries, forestry and agriculture, Maori would also want to participate in climate-change debate, he said.
Mr Key spoke after a symbolic tying of taura (flax ropes) with Tuwharetoa paramount chief Tumu te Heuheu, who said Maori wanted a partnership with the Government that realised "the full potential of iwi and their land, human capital and natural resources".
He cited two examples from the central North Island forests settlement, saying the iwi collective involved was "not content to only assume a role of landlord" but intended to participate in ownership of future forests.
It was also exploring "significant geothermal development and investment opportunities".
Maori Affairs Minister and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples, who accompanied Mr Key to the marae, said the Prime Minister's visit had opened doors with Maori.
"He hasn't promised them things he can't give, but he's promised them korero, dialogue, and that's got to be great."
In 1856, Pukawa Marae was the site of a gathering of 1600 tribal leaders who discussed how they could address threats to Maori survival.