Wet meadows are one of the most important ecological components in floodplain, and are among the most dynamic ecosystems. Understanding the development of wet meadows and contributing environmental factors can provide better support for wetland management. Carex meadows in East Dongting Lake National Nature Reserve (EDLNNR) provide vital wintering ground for thousands of migratory waterbirds, and their ecological functions are under threated due to hydrological alternation. We measured wet meadow expansion in EDLNNR from 1989 to 2014, and explored its responses to hydrological and climatic factors within the generalised additive models (GAM) framework. We found an overall expansion of wet meadows over the study period. However, in contrast to many previous studies, our results showed that water level fluctuations at the hydrologic indicator site had only limited impacts on their development. Instead, sampling year, timing of water level recession, and local rainfall exerted significant effects. The effects of sampling year reflected the changes in sedimentation within Dongting Lake; and effects of timing of water withdrawal might be explained by the life history of the dominant sedge species. Our study suggested that the impacts of large scale hydrological alternation on vegetation may operate indirectly through its effects on sediment balance.