This study focuses on detecting trends in annual runoff volume and sediment load in the Yangtze river-lake system. Times series of annual runoff volume and sediment load at 19 hydrological gauging stations for the period 1956–2013 were collected. Based on the Mann-Kendall test at the 1% significance level, annual sediment loads in the Yangtze River, the Dongting Lake and the Poyang Lake were detected with significantly descending trends. The power spectrum estimation indicated predominant oscillations with periods of 8 and 20 years are embedded in the runoff volume series, probably related to the El Niño Southern Oscillation (2–7 years) and Pacific Decadal Oscillation (20–30 years). Based on dominant components (capturing more than roughly 90% total energy) extracted by the proper orthogonal decomposition method, total change ratios of runoff volume and sediment load during the last 58 years were evaluated. For sediment load, the mean CRT value in the Yangtze River is about −65%, and those in the Dongting Lake and the Poyang Lake are −92.2% and −87.9% respectively. Particularly, the CRT value of the sediment load in the channel inflow of the Dongting Lake is even −99.7%. The Three Gorges Dam has intercepted a large amount of sediment load and decreased the sediment load downstream.