To compare the impacts of river discharge on the surface water quality of the Xiangjiang River in China, 12 surface water quality parameters recorded at 31 sampling sites from January 1998 to December 2008 along the river and its main tributaries were analyzed. Significantly higher concentrations of total nitrogen, ammoniacal nitrogen, and total phosphorus, and biochemical oxygen demand were observed during low-flow periods than during high-flow periods, implying a higher risk to local residents drinking untreated water during low-flow periods. Pollution indexes, including the inorganic pollution index and integrated pollution index (IPI), were negatively related to impervious surface area (ISA) and cropland area (CLA) when ISA (CLA) was less than 160 (3000) km2. However, the relationship was positive when ISA (CLA) was larger than 160 (3000) km2, which provided a reasonable explanation for the observed spatial patterns of water quality. Distinct increasing temporal trends for two kinds of pollution indexes were also found. The annual ISA was significantly related to the rapid degradation of water quality from 1998 to 2008, with correlation coefficient (r) values of 0.816 (p = 0.002) and 0.711 (p = 0.014) for the organic pollution index (OPI) and IPI, respectively. However, annual rainfall was negatively correlated with the two indexes with r values of 0.785 (p = 0.002) and 0.448 (p = 0.093) for OPI and IPI, respectively. Our study highlights that decision makers should be more aware of recent increases in the pollution of the Xiangjiang River, especially at downriver sites and during low-flow periods. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.