Absorption and fluorescence of colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM) and concentrations of dissolved organic carbon (DOC), chlorophyll and total suspended solids in Tampa Bay and its adjacent rivers were examined in June and October of 2004. Except in Old Tampa Bay (OTB), the spatial distribution of CDOM showed a conservative relationship with salinity in June, 2004 (aCDOM(400) = − 0.19 × salinity + 6.78, R2 = 0.98, n = 17, salinity range = 1.1–32.5) with little variations in absorption spectral slope and fluorescence efficiency. This indicates that CDOM distribution was dominated by mixing. In October, 2004, CDOM distribution was nonconservative with an average absorption coefficient (aCDOM(400), ∼ 7.76 m-1) about seven times higher than that in June (∼ 1.11 m-1). The nonconservative behavior was caused largely by CDOM removal at intermediate salinities (e.g., aCDOM(400) removal > 15% at salinity ∼ 13.0), which likely resulted from photobleaching due to stronger stratification. The spatial and seasonal distributions of CDOM in Tampa Bay showed that the two largest rivers, the Alafia River (AR) and Hillsborough River (HR) were dominant CDOM sources to most of the bay. In OTB, however, CDOM showed distinctive differences: lower absorption coefficient, higher absorption spectral slopes, and lower ratios of CDOM absorption to DOC and higher fluorescence efficiency. These differences may have stemmed from (1) changes in CDOM composition by more intensive photobleaching due to the longer residence time of water mass in OTB; (2) other sources of CDOM than the HR/AR inputs, such as local creeks, streams, groundwater, and/or bottom re-suspension. Average CDOM absorption in Tampa Bay at 443 nm, aCDOM(443), was about five times higher in June and about ten times higher in October than phytoplankton pigment absorption, aph(443), indicating that blue light attenuation in the water column was dominated by CDOM rather than by phytoplankton absorption throughout the year.