Environmentalist and academic Dame Anne Salmond is calling for a waterways commission to urgently take charge of the country's water, warning that killing the waterways would be dangerous for society and the economy.
Her call is backed by the Māori Council, but farmers and at least one environment group say it will not work.
Dame Anne said people feared they were losing control of the water to private interests and that more lakes and rivers were becoming dangerously toxic.
"You've got lakes like Lake Forsyth down south, which is so toxic it's killing sheep and dogs and that's a kind of signpost to the kind of future where we might be heading."
The battle over water had become so contentious that iwi, farmers, clean water campaigners and other groups needed to find common ground.
"We need a solution that gives everybody a stake and a way of seeing that everybody benefits."
An independently run Waterways Commission would be funded by user charges on commercial users like bottled water and irrigation companies.
Dame Anne, the patron of Te Awaroa, A Thousand Rivers, an organisation committed to saving the rivers, said the challenge was to make sure that water did not turn into a commodity where the profits flowed into the pockets of a few.
The commission also had to help communities to restore and care for the waterways before it is too late.
"If we kill off our waterways that's a very dangerous thing to do to our economy to our society. It's not just about being able to swim in the waterways it's having lakes and rivers and estuaries and streams and springs that don't kill."
The Māori Council chair Sir Eddie Durie said water was the biggest issue Māori was facing.
"We're dealing with a resource that's becoming a worldwide scarce resource and we are setting a pattern now that will affect future generations. It is the last frontier, if you like, in our resource development programmes."
Sir Eddie said water should be owned by everyone but a waterways commission would allocate a proportion of the money from the user charges to promoting Māori association with the water.
He said a commission could be modelled on the fisheries quota management system set up about 30 years ago.
"This body is tasked with ensuring what sort of flow must be maintained to ensure that we end up with water bodies that would provide for local fisheries, and which is swimmable not wadeable, and which can ensure that there is free water for domestic purposes. And then looking at what is the balance that may be used commercially."
But farmers said a commission wouldn't work.
Federated Farmers water spokesman Chris Allen said generations of governments had done nothing about the water and it should be left to communities who understood their waterways.
"There's iwi, there's local communities where you'd be a farmer, an irrigator, a skifield operator. Everyone wants to have a say in their water and taking that away from them and moving it to Wellington just doesn't fulfill all those things about collaborative governance of water."
Some people had become too emotional about the extent of the pollution and the commercial take for water companies, he said.
"How much money are they making, how much water are they taking? To me its quite a contentious question as to what are we actually dealing with? From what I'm aware there's about six or relatively small events compared to the some of the takes that go on round the place. I'm not supportive of that approach at the moment but how big is the problem."
Roger Young of the Waterrights Trust in Canterbury said the group had been working for more than 16 years to preserve lowland freshwater streams threatened by the rapid growth in farming.
He said so far it was losing the fight but he did not think a waterways commission was the answer.
"On the surface it seems like a good idea because there does need to be something to break the impasse. Our concern would be that a commission would lead to even more delays. We've had an experience in Canterbury of collaborative consultations and that hasn't worked."
Roger Young said a moratorium on further farming intensification and irrigation would be a better solution.
Dame Anne said New Zealanders would become extremely angry if waterways that belonged to everybody were captured in the interests of a few.
Doing nothing was not an option, she said.