In the traditional point of view, if there is a significant decreasing trend for a runoff time series, while no significant trend for a precipitation series is present, then an unreliable conclusion will be made that the land surface change is the main contributor to the runoff change. To test it, we selected four sub-watersheds in the Luanhe river basin as the study areas where land use has changed severely. We first detected the long-term rainfall and runoff trend by the Mann–Kendall test, Sen’s slope, and the moving average method, and found that the runoff had a decreasing trend at the 0.05 significance level, while the rainfall had no significant trend in all sub-watersheds. Then an orderly cluster analysis and moving T test method were used to detect the change point of the runoff series. We quantified the contributions of the land surface change and climate variability based on Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT), and the contribution of climate variability accounted for more than 50%, which implies that climate change is the main factor of runoff decrease in the study areas. To further test this, a trend analysis of a reconstructed annual runoff time series under undisturbed conditions has been done. The results showed that in some sub-watersheds, although rainfall series had no significant decreasing trend, the runoff series had significant downward trend. This can be explained by the nonlinear relationship between rainfall and runoff. This study came to a different conclusion from the common view, which observes that runoff decrease is mainly caused by land surface change if rainfall series lacks a significantly decreasing trend.
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