Insufficient precipitation and continuous over-exploitation of groundwater for agricultural irrigation led to rapid drop of groundwater table in a large part of the North China Plain (NCP), the bread basket of China. It has become widely acknowledged that current practice of winter wheat-summer maize sequential cropping system (WM-S) in the NCP will have to come to an end as soon as possible. Great research efforts have been made at the local level via both field experiments and model simulations to construct groundwater neutral cropping systems but virtually all such constructs show a substantial penalty on total output per unit of land per year. In this research, we propose a strategy to meet the double challenge of maintaining regional grain production level and recovering local groundwater table: 1) Widely adopt winter fallow and early-sowing summer maize monocropping (E-M) in water scarce part of the region to enable groundwater recovery; 2) replace WM-S by wheat-maize relay intercropping system (WM-R) in the water richer part of the NCP to increase grain production so as to compensate yield losses in the water scarce part of the region. Our simulations using DSSAT 4.6 at the site level show that both yield and water productivity of E-M are 33.7% and 41.8% higher than those of existing summer maize, with less than 20% of increase in water requirement. In comparison with spring maize, E-M requires 62.4% less irrigation water, with a yield penalty of only 4.52%. At the regional scale, the simulations targeting at maximizing groundwater saving in water scarce area subject to maintaining the current level of regional total output indicate that about 20.45% of the wheat planting area can be put on fallow in winter, most of which is located in the driest regions of the NCP. This can result in a large amount of groundwater saving at 5.62 × 109 m3 and a substitution of wheat by maize at 24.3% of the total wheat output. These findings provide new rooms for the relevant policy makers and stakeholders to address the urgent groundwater recovering issues in the northern NCP without compromising the level of food grain production of the region.

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photograph of Honglin Zhong