The 2011–2014 removal of two dams from the Elwha River, WA, delivered ~ 19 Mt of sediment to the marine environment, creating an opportunity to study the sensitivity of a coastal ecosystem to large-scale sediment input. Macroalgae, the primary habitat-forming species in the nearshore, disappeared from the region. It was hypothesized that this mortality event was caused by a reduction in benthic light availability due to increased turbidity. To investigate this connection, nearshore processes and benthic light availability were monitored at 7 locations along the 10-m isobath in 2016 and 2017. The primary driver of light attenuation was suspended sediment, with measured chlorophyll-a and CDOM concentrations contributing < 15% to observed attenuation values. A Bootstrap-aggregated Regression Tree was trained to predict attenuation from the in situ data. Light attenuation was impacted by both sediment transport in the river plume, represented in the model by fluvial suspended sediment load and tidal current direction, and subsurface resuspension, represented by wave height and bed shear velocity. The models were used to hindcast light availability during the dam removal. Total daily benthic light availability was below the 1–2 mol photons/m2/day threshold for macroalgae growth consistently in 2013 and seasonally in 2012 and 2014, supporting the hypothesis that reduced light availability caused the mortality event. Light availability increased in 2016–2017 as the annual sediment load decreased, and macroalgae were concurrently observed in the region. Predicting benthic light availability over event, tidal, and seasonal timescales by accounting for both near-surface and subsurface attenuation will improve management strategies designed to limit ecosystem damage during sediment delivery events.