Water experts have been told ensuring that the governance and management of freshwater recognises Māori interests is a critical challenge for New Zealand
Rahui Papa, the chair of Waikato-Tainui's executive board Te Arataura, made the comment at the Water New Zealand conference currently being held in Hamilton.
An iwi leaders' forum has been in discussion with the government to make sure iwi, hapū and whānau rights and interests in freshwater are not ignored.
Mr Papa, who is a member of the forum, told the conference that wai is an inseparable part of whakapapa and identity for Māori.
He said the future health and wellbeing of lakes, rivers and streams was of utmost importance to iwi.
Mr Papa said the Crown and iwi have agreed on a process to resolve the issue because it could not be ignored.
"The iwi leadership group firmly believe that the direct engagement with the Prime Minister and senior government ministers would deliver the most beneficial outcome at this time.
"We strongly believe that seeking to resolve these issues through the court should only be a pathway of last resort."
He added that the current freshwater management framework failed to recognise and provide for Māori rights, interests and responsibilities in relation to freshwater.
Julian Williams, who works for Waikato-Tainui's environment unit, said the move from local to national decision-making on freshwater recognised iwi as a full partner with the Crown.
Mr Williams said, for Waikato-Tainui, the definition of ownership and control of the Waikato River was clear.
"The way we describe it is that, as a responsibility, she is ours, she is mine to look after, she is mine to care for - and she owns us, so ownership, in that sense to us, means that she is ours and we are hers.
"We just need to use tools to get greater recognition around decision-making."
Mr Williams said the foundation of any framework for freshwater management must be based on the Treaty of Waitangi and recognise the relationship between iwi, hapū and marae to their waterways.
"This relationship we are trying to establish, we are working on with the Crown, will not usurp the mana of any other tribe or hapū.
"This is trying to get everyone at the same level of discussions. How can we learn from each other and get everyone to start on the same level, so that our whanau that are negotiating settlements don't have to waste negotiation cards on things that they should naturally be entitled to?"
'Everybody wants to be able to swim in their rivers'
Ricky Ellison, from Ngāi Tahu, said most people had a simple request when it came to freshwater.
"Everybody wants to be able to swim in their rivers. We want to be able to go down and catch trout or whitebait or whatever your mahinga kai, your traditional foods are.
"When we go out and talk to the community, that is the sort of discussion they want to engage in. We want to be able to swim, we want [to take] our kids to the river and not be in danger when they actually jump in rather than just paddle on the side in their gumboots.
"We are not saying we want everything. We want a fair share of what that water is, similar to what we did with fisheries, we have done with aquaculture. We have created [the] certainty that everybody needs for that industry to move forward," he said.
Two series of regional hui on freshwater have now been held and a third is being planned for November.