AbstractFor nearly 30 y, cropland on the North China Plain (NCP) has been irrigated primarily by pumping groundwater with no sustainable management strategy. This has caused a continuous decline of the water table. A sustainable groundwater management and irrigation strategy must be established in order to prevent further decline of the water table; to do this, one must quantify soil water content and daily rates of deep percolation and locate evapotranspiration from irrigated cropland. For that purpose, we developed a three‐layer soil–water balance (SWB) model based on an approach described by Kendy et al. (2003). In this model, the unsaturated soil zone is divided into three layers: a surface active layer, a middle active soil layer, and a lowest passive soil layer. The middle and the lowest layers dynamically change with the development of crop rooting depth. A simple “tipping bucket” routine and an exponential equation are used to redistribute soil water in the three soil layers. The actual evapotranspiration estimated is partitioned into soil evaporation and crop transpiration using a dual crop coefficient reference approach. At first, the model was calibrated using data obtained from five deficiently irrigated field plots located at an experimental site in the NCP between 1998 and 2003. Then, the model was validated by comparing estimated soil water contents with measured ones at three other plots with nondeficient irrigation. The estimates of actual evapotranspiration were compared with those measured with a large‐scale weighing lysimeter (3 m2). The index of agreement (IA) for soil water contents varied between 0.62 and 0.80; the concordance correlation coefficient (CCC) and the root mean square error obtained from the same comparison were 0.34–0.65 and 0.043–0.074 cm3 cm–3, respectively. The rates of 10 d mean evapotranspiration estimated by the model show a good fit to those measured by the large‐scale lysimeter; this is indicated by IA = 0.94 and CCC = 0.88. Our results indicate that at the irrigated cropland on the plain, deep soil water–percolation rates are usually <200 mm y–1 under nondeficient‐irrigation conditions.

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