Growing public concern about water-bottling activities in Hawke's Bay has prompted regional councillors to call for a report on the "high level" issuing related to granting consents to take water from local aquifers.
Construction is under way to convert an Awatoto industrial building into a bottling plant on a site where the owners have permission to extract more than 400 million litres of underground water a year.
Another business, based in Hastings, has consent to take up to 500 million litres a year from July, increasing to 900 million litres a year from 2017.
At a regional council meeting last week, councillor Peter Beaven asked if it was possible to change the rules so the council had "better control over how water is allocated".
"What we have is growers who are sitting on a ban and they have actually been required to shut their irrigators off already this season and it's quite possible it could happen again if we continue to have dry weather," Mr Beaven said.
"So you can understand the difficulty the public have in understanding how we could be giving 900,000 cubic metres of water [900 million litres] over here, and yet over here, out of the same aquifer we're saying 'no, you have to turn your irrigators off until the water in the local river gets above a certain level'," he said.
"The politics of this are impossible to manage because the public sees growers not being able to access water to keep trees alive and on the other hand they see us giving this allocation of water for bottling and sending off to China. That doesn't make any logical sense at all."
The council's resource management group manager, Iain Maxwell, told the meeting water takes were granted by the council under the Resource Management Act which was an "effects-based" law and did not allow for "picking winners" in terms of how resources were allocated.
"It works on the premise that activities are generally okay unless they are specifically identified as being prohibited - as long as effects are managed," Mr Maxwell said.
The council had the option to change its approach as part of a review currently under way into how land and water resources are managed in the Greater Heretaunga and Ahuriri area.
The catchment-wide approach to managing water and land will result in a change to the regional resource management plan for the area known as Tank - covering the Tutaekuri, Ahuriri, Ngaruroro and Karamu catchments, plus the Heretaunga Plains aquifer system.
"In the meantime it's first in, first served [for consent applications] and as long as it's reasonable, it's efficient, and effects are managed, we can't say yes or no based on a judgment as to what the water is ultimately used for."
Councillor Rick Barker called for council staff to prepare a "high-level paper setting out these issues so we can consider them".
Mr Barker said the first-in-first-served system prescribed under the RMA was put in place when water supplies were considered limitless "which is no longer the case".