The Whanganui River Claim is being intensively negotiated this month and next, Whanganui River Maori Trust Board spokesman Gerrard Albert said.
He's been spending a lot of time in Wellington and expects to have a draft deed of settlement to take out to Whanganui iwi (tribes) by the end of March.
The "what" of the settlement was agreed with the Government in August. The details of the deed of settlement will thrash out the "how" - how it will work in practice for the people of the river, local and regional government and central government.
Treaty Negotiations Minister Chris Finlayson has made concluding the settlement this year a priority, honouring a commitment he made to the late Sir Archie Taiaroa.
When there's a draft deed of settlement, Mr Albert and others will hold a series of meetings during April and early May to test whether river tribes agree with it. It's an extra step for this claim, but one he says is important because it is the people who will have to make this settlement work.
"We said this is something that we want to conduct by our tikanga-based [customary] process."
The meetings will be in the Whanganui region and in main New Zealand cities. Meetings will also be held with others connected to the river.
"It's not an exclusive situation, because the river is the river, and it includes the communities that rely on it physically, spiritually and culturally. The iwi will not be punitive in its approach."
Only after that will tribal members be asked to vote on whether to accept the settlement.
It was an exciting time for all the tribes and sub-tribes with connections to the river claim (Wai 167). The region's land claim (Wai 903) is progressing at the same time, though its Waitangi Tribunal report is not out yet.
Tribal young people were being upskilled to meet the challenges of the land and river settlements, and people who had moved out of the area might be drawn back.
"Those who don't live at home are starting to see the opportunity to become involved in deciding what their role will be," Mr Albert said.
The preliminary claim agreement signed in August made the river and all its tributaries a legal entity in itself, with rights to be protected. It was a completely new approach to a natural resource claim. "It's a new way of interacting with the river, and that will take time to bed in."
The Whanganui River Maori Trust Board was formed to negotiate the claim, and will wind up when it is settled.
After that, a new legal entity will be needed.
Mr Albert said the tribes would essentially be sticking to their customary governance process, with hapu (subtribes) taking their views to the whole-of-river body established in 1997, Te Runanga o Te Awa Tupua.