This study explores the potential for predicting the spatial variation in subsurface water level change with crop growth stage from satellite data in Thabua Irrigation Project, situated in the northern central region of Thailand. The relationship between subsurface water level change from pumping water to irrigate rice in the dry season and the age of the rice was analysed. The spatial model of subsurface water level change was developed from the classification using greenness or (normalized difference vegetation index NDVI) derived from Landsat 5 Thematic Mapper data. The NDVI of 52 rice fields was employed to assess its relationship to the age of the rice. It was found that NDVI and rice age have a good correlation (R2 = 0·73). The low NDVI values (−0·059 to 0·082) in these fields were related to the young rice stage (0–30 days). NDVI and subsurface water level change were also correlated in this study and found to have a high correlation (Water level change (m day−1) = 0·3442 × NDVI − 0·0372; R2 = 0·96). From this model, the water level change caused by rice at different growth stages was derived. This was used to show the spatial variation of water level change in the project during the 1998–99 dry-season cropping. This simple method of using NDVI relationships with water level change and crop growth stages proves to be useful in determining the areas prone to excessive lowering of the subsurface water level during the dry season. This could assist in the appropriate planning of the use of subsurface water resources in dry-season cropping. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.