Hapū near Whangarei say they have run out of steam to oppose plans for a water-bottling operation at Poroti Springs, but remain adamant they don't want it.
Zodiac Holdings, a private Auckland company, has applied for resource consent to build a bottling factory over the road from the springs.
It wants to build a 3600-square-metre factory and bottle up to a million litres of water a day for the domestic and Chinese markets.
In its application to the Whangarei District Council for land-use consent, Zodiac said the factory would create about 20 jobs, most of them in Whangarei.
"The proposed bottling plant will improve the economic well-being of Northland, primarily through employment and by the export of product through Northport."
The Whatitiri Trustees have had legal title to the springs since 1898, and have been fighting Zodiac's plans for more than a decade.
They said drawing water from the Whatitiri Mountain aquifer before it reached the springs would deprive them of their rightful nourishment and would damage an ancestral taonga, as has happened in the past.
In the summer of 1983 - when the Whangarei council owned the Zodiac bore site - it ran the springs dry, killing off watercress and koura.
After an official inquiry, the council moved its water intake site to the Waipao stream below the springs, to avoid any repeat of the situation.
But the council then sold the bores to private interests, and in 2013 the Northland Regional Council gave Zodiac the right to take water from the bore-site for the next 35 years.
That consent set limits on the volume taken - the combined take by Zodiac, the council and a local irrigation company must not allow the flow through the Poroti Springs to fall below 50-litres a second.
But hapū were sceptical that would be accurately monitored and enforced.
After years of planning and marketing, Zodiac was finally getting around to exercising its water consent. In its application, the company said it had tried to maintain an open dialogue with iwi, but they had been unwilling to engage while their Treaty claims had been before the Waitangi Tribunal.
"In relation to the relevant matters in this resource consent, the potential adverse effects on tangata whenua values have been avoided to the greatest extent practicable," Zodiac said.
Its legal advice was that claims by iwi relating to ownership of the springs were simply not relevant to the land-use consent to build the factory.
Northland rivers campaigner Millan Ruka, from the local hapu Te Uri Roroi, said he was close to despair.
After years of fighting Zodiac's water-taking consents, and losing every time, he said hapū did not have the expertise or the money to oppose the building consent.
"It's just devastating," he said.
"We have no skills, none of us have - to respond to these applications. These consents commonly cost $20K to $50k; I'd say this is a fifty-grander, but we have zero assistance, just zero. We've exhausted everything."
The Whangarei Council has publicly notified Zodiac's application.
It noted that as a commercial activity, the bottling factory exceeded the council standard for size and fell short of the standards for parking spaces, and traffic movement, with up to 80 truck movements a day.
That made it a discretionary activity, which the council can approve if Zodiac showed it could mitigate those problems.
The company believed it could, saying the factory would be an attractive building, screened-off by planting. It would also treat its own effluent, while the Transport Agency has approved its traffic plan to handle the truck movements.
But the Whatitiri trustees said the human waste and grey water generated by 16 factory staff and truck drivers over two eight-hour shifts a day was significant.
They said Zodiac's plan to treat the waste on-site in an effluent field just over the road from the springs was offensive.
However, Zodiac director Paul Thompson told RNZ the potential for groundwater contamination was very low.
"Our effluent system is designed to the highest standards with health and wellbeing of the springs being top-of-mind and also the security of the aquifer our business relies on," he said.
Mr Thompson said there were already a large number of potential contamination sources near the springs.
"These include septic systems, large and small buildings and cattle grazing within 20 metres of the springhead. I am not aware of any issues these have created for the springs so I'm confident our activity will also pose no risk to the springs."
He said the company had offered to have its principal engineer, who designed the effluent system, meet with the Whatitri Trustees to assist them, but they had not taken up the offer.
Whangarei District councillor Trish Cutforth was urging people to make submissions on the Zodiac consent.
Her extended family had owned the farm next to Poroti Springs for many years, and the matter was an important one for the community, she said.
But she warned there would be no point objecting to the water-take itself because the application was only about the factory building and its potential impacts.
"Whether that's traffic, or noise or the appropriateness of a commercial operation in that area; (but) the actual take of the water is a separate issue," Ms Cutforth said.
Submissions close on Zodiac's resource consent with the Whangarei District Council on 30 August.