Monthly sediment load and streamflow series spanning 1963–2004 from four hydrological stations situation in the main stem of the Yangtze River, China, are analysed using scanning t-test and the simple two-phase linear regression scheme. Results indicate significant changes in the sediment load and streamflow from the upper reach to the lower reach of the Yangtze River. Relatively consistent positive coherency relations can be detected between streamflow and sediment load in the upper reach and negative coherency in the middle and lower reaches. Interestingly, negative coherency is found mainly for larger time scales. Changes in sediment load are the result mainly of human influence; specifically, the construction of water reservoirs may be the major cause of negative coherency. Accentuating the human influence from the upper to the lower reach results in inconsistent correlations between sediment load and streamflow. Decreasing sediment load being observed in recent years has the potential to alter the topographical properties of the river channel and the consequent development and recession of the Yangtze Delta. Results of this study are of practical significance for river channel management and evaluation of the influence of human activities on the hydrological regimes of large rivers. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.