More than 80 percent of New Zealanders want tougher rules protecting rivers and lakes from pollution, a new survey has found.
Fish & Game commissioned the nationwide poll which was conducted in early December by Colmar Brunton.
About 82 percent of respondents said they would support a move to introduce mandatory environmental standards for New Zealand's waterways, even if it meant regulating intensive farming.
Support is stronger among people who are very concerned about the pollution of rivers and lakes, with nine out of ten supporting tougher rules.
Fish & Game chief executive Martin Taylor said local authorities had for too long allowed intensive farms to become established in unsuitable areas, and then protected them at the expense of the environment.
Watch Fish & Game boss Martin Taylor in studio talking to Morning Report's Gyles Beckford:
He said enforcement of the rules had been weak.
"That policy has resulted in dirty rivers and lakes choked with sediment.
"In many places, New Zealanders have been robbed of the ability to swim, fish and gather food from their local waterways."
Mr Taylor said the government had the mandate to introduce tougher rules as part of its National Policy Statement for Freshwater which should be released for public consultation this year. Enforcement could be by next year.
"These survey results show they have the public's support to tackle an issue Kiwis are deeply concerned about."
The survey was done before independent scientific tests for Fish & Game on three Canterbury rivers revealed strains of a severe pathogen which can cause kidney failure and, possibly for the first time, antibiotic resistant E. coli.
Mr Taylor said those lab results showed how bad the situation was.
"If we ran the Colmar Brunton survey now, I would expect the results would show even greater concern about water pollution and even more people overwhelmingly in favour of tougher rules."
Mr Taylor said most farmers were operating within the existing rules and the problem was the rules were too weak - that needed to change.
He said local government should start listening to voters' concerns.
"There's certainly some intensive farming practices we've seen over the last decade which have caused a lot of the problems that we've got," Mr Taylor told Morning Report.
"I don't think it's beyond the realms of reasonableness to expect that to be pegged back so that we can actually stop the further degradation of our lakes, rivers and streams."
He couldn't see any political party being successful in 2020 if they didn't come out with a "credible plan to fix what is New Zealand's biggest environmental problem", he said.
Most main parties had dropped the ball on the issue over the past 16 years, he said.
"It happened under Helen Clark and it continued under National."
The number of cows on the land and the intensity of how they're farmed has to change, he said.
"Someone has to take a haircut somewhere. But the government's role is to balance that and, at the moment, we think the coalition government is on the right track. What they come out with is yet to be seen but something has to be done."
About 1000 New Zealanders throughout the country were surveyed and the results were nationally representative for age, gender and region.
The poll had a margin of error of 3.1 percent.