Prime Minister Bill English says it's looking like it'll be "too hard" to put a price on the country's water.

There has been growing unease in recent weeks over foreign companies' plans to export water. Nongfu Spring, a Chinese company, wants to take 5 million litres a day from the Bay of Plenty, and there are consent hearings underway for water to be piped out of Mt Aspiring National Park.

Speaking to The AM Show on Monday morning, Mr English said a century of convention would be upended if New Zealand suddenly started charging companies to use or take water.

"You'd have to work out pretty basic things like who owns it? What would you charge them? Who else would you charge?

"Because other people make money out of water, including the tourist boats that float on it.

"If there was a simple, easy answer here it would already be in place."

At the weekend Mr English said we "have the opportunity over the next few years to change those rules if we want to", but appears to now be closer in opinion to Environment Minister Nick Smith, who last week called the proposals "ridiculous".

"Right now, it is too hard," said Mr English. "You want to be careful about rushing in and starting to charge people that historically no one's owned and no one's paid for."

And before any companies could be forced to pay the Crown for water, Mr English says iwi will want a slice.

"I think they would almost certainly come in with a claim. It would be pretty hard to resolve it."

He maintains that the Government's first priority remains the quality of New Zealand's water.

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