DALTON Ga. -- The team responsible for shaping the future of North Georgia's water found out what that future might look like Wednesday.

Demographers shared projections with the Coosa-North Georgia Water Council, explaining Georgia could become the nation's fifth most populous state in 30 to 40 years.

The projections, created by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government and the University of Georgia, show the 18-county region would grow from its current population of around 750,000 residents to 1.3 million. The state as a whole is projected to have between 16 million and 18 million residents by 2050.

Water council members debated the figures which factor in data from the census, employment records, birth, death and immigration data. Some Northeastern Georgia officials said the employment numbers could skew the data because of retirees moving to the area's mountains. Northwest Georgia officials said the numbers may focus too much on the spread of Atlanta and not look at the spread of the Chattanooga metro area.

"You're looking at the spread of Atlanta," said Walker County coordinator David Ashburn, who serves as the council's vice chairman. "In our area, people go north into Chattanooga."

Dr. Warren Brown, who coordinated the Institute studies, defended the figures over a conference call. He said the data provides a good range of possibilities but acknowledged they are not exact and would likely change after data from the 2010 census is released.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington III called the entire projection process into question.

"Is it safe to say that making these population estimates is somewhere between an educated guess and a shot in the dark?" he asked.

"I agree," Dr. Warren said, sparking chuckles across the room.

The one thing all of the council members agreed on was that the area would see plenty of growth.

"I don't care which one of these scenarios you look at, (the population estimates) are all going up and none are going down," said Don Cope, president and CEO of Dalton Utilities.

Charles Bethel, a council member from Whitfield County, urged fellow decision makers to err on the side of growth as they plan for the future.

"If you plan for more and you're wrong, you're more okay than if you plan for less and you're wrong," he said.

Officials said they hope to have more detailed projections for the group's next meeting in September. Mr. Ashburn said at this point the council would have to wait on more data to be finalized.

"Unfortunately, the research data is driving the bus right now," he said.