Water use is the biggest environmental impact of toilets.

Photograph by Constant/Shutterstock

Environmental Impact

Water Shortages

Roughly 26 billion gallons of water are used each day in the United States, about 6 billion gallons of which go to operate toilets.

Household water consumption has a significant impact on aquatic life, especially when water supplies come from freshwater lakes and streams. The Rio Grande, recently named one of the World Wildlife Fund's Top 10 Rivers at Risk, has been so overextracted that saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico has begun moving upstream and endangering native species. So far, 32 of the river's 121 native species have been displaced as a result of increased salinity. And in New Mexico, supplying Santa Fe with water has transformed the Santa Fe River, named America's Most Endangered River in 2007 by the non-profit American Rivers, into a dusty ditch for most of the year.

Just like the Rio Grande, city water supplies are succumbing to saltwater intrusion, which occurs when increased pumping of groundwater allows saltwater pools to infiltrate freshwater supplies, making water unfit for human use. In response, cities are installing energy-intensive desalination plants, which require more fossil-fuel-derived power that, in turn, contributes to global warming. To date, desalination plants can be found in a few states, and several countries.

According to recent EPA statistics, "at least 36 states are anticipating local, regional or statewide water shortages by 2013."

Out West, water conflicts have raged for decades, mainly among farmers, who need water for their crops, and city water consumers. Cities are gradually taking more water, which could mean a long-term struggle for small farmers. In Nevada, Las Vegas water officials have campaigned for rights to the states’ rural groundwater, hoping to redirect tens of billions of gallons of groundwater a year to support the city's phenomenal growth.

« What to Look For | Usage Tips »


Save Water

Learn More About Freshwater »


  • change-the-course-dry-co.jpg

    Help Save the Colorado River

    NG's new Change the Course campaign launches. When individuals pledge to use less water in their own lives, our partners carry out restoration work in the Colorado River Basin.

  • National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    Sustainability at National Geographic

    The National Geographic Society aims to be an international leader for global conservation and environmental sustainability. Learn more about the Society's green philosophy and initiatives.

Learn More About Freshwater »