Nearly 25,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the Ashburton District Council's plans to sell a property which will allow the owner to extract billions of litres of water from the local aquifer.
The council intends to sell the 10-hectare site, part of the Ashburton Business Estate northeast of the town, to a party interested in setting up a water-bottling plant.
However, the idea has raised heckles, with the council accused of conducting a backroom deal to sell 40 billion litres of water over the next 30 years.
An online petition on the SumOfUs website says more than 24,000 people have signed the petition calling for the council to cancel the sale. However, the petition's signatories cannot be identified on the website.
Local woman Jen Branje has organised a rally opposing the sale for this Saturday. Her group, Bung the Bore, says locals should have more say in how the region's resources are being used.
Ashburton Mayor Angus McKay says money from the sale will be used to offset rates. The council had followed the rules in putting the land up for sale.
He had offered to meet the opponents last week to discuss the issue but a meeting was declined, he said.
"From my experience, the first step in the resolution of any dispute is for both parties to get together and put their concerns on the table," he said in a statement.
"This will be a considerable land sale that will benefit all ratepayers ... We are selling land that may eventually be used for a water bottling plant. It could also be used for horticulture, an abattoir or any other wet industry."
The council won't name the company citing commercial sensitivity but that while the landowner is consented to take 45 litres a second from the aquifer underneath, it must be replenished at a rate of 60 litres a second from Ashburton's stock water system.
It wouldn't have any effect on the town supply or other irrigators, the council said.
Confirmation of the sale is expected in June this year.