The vexed issues of polluted waterways and water allocation may be handed over to local communities to decide, if a report to the Government is accepted.
The Land and Water Forum, a body formed by more than 60 organisations, wants communities to come to agreement by reaching a consensus.
The discussions would consider each water catchment and decisions would be within government-set frameworks and bottom lines.
Forum chairman Alastair Bisley described the report, the third and final one from the forum during the past two years, as a "once-in-a-generation chance to resolve the entrenched problems surrounding fresh water".
The forum proposes a collaborative approach at both national and catchment levels to set objectives for waterways, prescribe limits for takes and discharges where these are required, and to find "fair, efficient and accountable" ways to implement the limits.
Environment Minister Amy Adams and Primary Industries Minister David Carter said the work provided a solid foundation for progress on the Government's water management strategy.
They said they would now carefully consider the report's recommendations.
The report stops short of recommending a framework for achieving national targets for water quality, an aim expressed in the second report earlier this year.
However, the Government said it would take this on itself and set up a working party, which has yet to report.
Bisley said all water-quality solutions should be tailored to individual catchments.
"Good management practice by land and water users is the basic tool. Incentivising it is the preferred approach. Regions are accountable for managing, within limits.
"Industry schemes, catchment-wide initiatives and regulation may all help to ensure the limits are achieved within the agreed timeframes."