Ashburton residents are outraged the local council is in the process of selling the right to extract billions of litres of water to a bottled water company.
The Ashburton District Council is selling Lot 9 in its business estate, which comes with a resource consent to extract up to 45 litres of water per second from the town's aquifers.
But local residents are rallying together and say they will do everything they can to stop the sale going ahead.
The consents attached to Lot 9 would allow the company to extract up to 45 litres per second right through until 2046.
The Ashburton District Council would not disclose the potential buyer for Lot 9 due to commercial sensitivity, but said it expected to confirm the sale by June.
Local resident Jennifer Branji is leading the campaign to stop the sale going ahead.
She said the council had been doing the deal behind closed doors and had not once had a conversation with ratepayers.
"My main concern is that we live in a drought-prone area, our water supplies are already under so much pressure and there is no guarantee we will have water for ourselves - let alone letting an investor coming in and taking what we do have."
Ms Branji said concerned locals held a meeting last week and would meet again tonight to discuss ways to protest the sale.
"As you know water in New Zealand is free. So once - the company wouldn't be paying a cent, they don't owe us anything - they've bought the land, they've got the consents, so nothing good comes into our district.
"That is our land, as ratepayers it is our land, our rates paid for that development and to have it sold off behind our backs, to something we don't agree with, is absolutely abhorrent," Ms Branji said.
District mayor Angus McKay said there was also a recharge consent so, for every 45 litres taken, 60 litres would be put back into the aquifer.
That water comes from canals that are fed from the Ashburton River.
"We will create a gravel pit lined with plants and rocks which will recreate the natural filtering process," Mr McKay said.
He said there were no immediate plans to build the pit, but it would have to be done before the company started operating from the site.
Mr McKay said the council had the public's best interests at heart, as the sale of the site would go towards rates remissions.
"I don't believe people understand the levels of restrictions the regional council has in the Ashburton District.
"That upsets me that people don't realise that there are strict and stringent consents in place now, and that we are not abusing the source."
Ngai Tahu to look into consents
Local iwi Ngai Tahu were not aware of the consents but said they were looking into the situation.
Ngai Tahu chair Mark Solomon said it was incredible that the council would not think more broadly about the consents in an already over-allocated catchment.
"Our people are engaged in a range of activities at a regional level to protect and enhance the well-being of our waterways. Twenty years ago, the Ashburton region had reasonably good water quality but it is now an over-allocated catchment and faces some of the most pressing water quality challenges in our takiwā (tribal region)."
Mr Solomon said the Resource Management Act Amendment Bill before Parliament proposed councils work more cooperatively with iwi on resource planning.
"The council appears to be operating in a manner more fitting with the recent past. We think it is time for the Ashburton District Council to take account of the shift towards more participatory resource planning," Mr Solomon said.
Environmental Defence Society chair Gary Taylor said the issue was a storm in a teacup and the real question was whether there should be a price put on water.
"It's a common pool resource, nobody owns it, so it would be appropriate for people who use the resource and profit from it to pay a fee, which could then in turn be used to clean up our waterways."
Mr Taylor said if water was paid for the money, it should go to the government.
"It would be moving towards ownership rights not creating them. It would be better than the current system we have where there is no charge and waste of water faces no penalty," Mr Taylor said.