Changing light availability may be responsible for the discontinuous distribution of submersed aquatic macrophytes in the freshwater tidal Potomac River. During the 1985-1986 growing seasons, light attenuation and chlorophyll a and suspended particulate material concentrations were measured in an unvegetated reach (B) and in two adjacent vegetated reaches (A and C). Light attenuation in reach B (the lower, fresh to oligohaline tidal river) was greater than that in reach A (the recently revegetated, upper, freshwater tidal river) in both years. Reach B light attenuation was greater than that in reach C (the vegetated, oligohaline to mesohaline transition zone of the Potomac Estuary) in 1985 and similar to that in reach C in 1986. In reach B, 5% of total below-surface light penetrated only an average of 1.3 m in 1985 and 1.0m in 1986, compared with 1.9 m and 1.4 m in reach A in 1985 and 1986, respectively. Water column chlorophyll a concentration controlled light availability in reaches A and B in 1985, whereas both chlorophyll a and suspended particulate material concentrations were highly correlated with attenuation in both reaches in 1986. Reach C light attenuation was correlated with suspended particulate material in 1986. The relationship between attenuation coefficient and Secchi depth was KPAR=1.38/Secchi depth. The spectral distribution of light at 1 m was shifted toward the red portion of the visible spectrum compared to surface light. Blue light was virtually absent at 1.0 m in reach B during July and August 1986. Tidal range is probably an important factor in determining light availability for submersed macrophyte propagule survival at the sediment-water interface in this shallow turbid system. ?? 1990 Estuarine Research Federation.