People wondering what is in their water will soon get some answers as communities from across California volunteer to take water samples of coastal creeks, streams and rivers feeding into the ocean.

The California Coastal Commission, with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Water Resources Control Board, is working in conjunction with regional nonprofits to sponsor the first annual California Coast-Wide Snapshot Day on May 17. Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper, a local nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring the Santa Barbara Channel, will be coordinating local efforts starting at 9 a.m. at various locations throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties. Students and other community members can still volunteer even though the training dates for the event have already passed.

The event will be the fourth annual Snapshot Day held, but the first one to cover the entire coast of California.

“This is the first ever coast-wide water quality event, getting hundreds of volunteers from across the state to monitor water quality going into the ocean, all in one day,” said Leigh Ann Grabowsky, program coordinator for ChannelKeeper.

The samples collected will be used by several different government agencies, such as the State Water Resources Control Board, and the California Coastal Commission, to keep track of the quality of the water at a state level. In a few weeks, the samples will also be put into a public database, which anyone can access.

Snapshot Day aims to teach the public about water quality issues affecting the ocean, and to understand the quality of the water flowing to the coast. Volunteer monitors are to demonstrate that they play a key role in providing valuable information to resource managers, such as the State and Regional Water Quality Control Board, for reducing pollution.

“We want to call attention to the quality of the water,” Grabowsky said, “whether it’s good, bad or improving.”

Samples will be taken up and down the California coast, from the Oregon border to Mexico. Over 50 samples are to be taken from various creeks and streams between southern San Luis Obispo through Ventura. Data collected through the samples can tell a lot about the environment water comes from. These data include dissolved oxygen, pH balance, temperature, conductivity and turbidity.

If there is a low level of dissolved oxygen, it suggests that organic material cannot decompose and instead gets eaten by bacteria and turned into sulfate, giving a “rotten egg” smell. A decrease in pH balance can signal damage to aquatic life due to excess metals in the water. Conductivity, a measure of salts in the water, might tell if a species may be displaced and the ecosystem disrupted. High turbidity, which means less light passes through the water, points to decreased amounts of organisms that need light to survive.

Organizers expect that several dozen volunteers will participate. UCSB Ph.D. student Tim Robinson and research associate Al Leybecker from the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management will be involved with a lot of the work.

Anyone interested in participating can contact Jessie Altstatt, the program director, or Leigh Ann Grabowsky at (805) 563-3377.