This paper aims to contribute to understanding the importance of four factors on the determination of sustainable yields: (i) aquifer properties; (ii) temporal distribution of recharge; (iii) temporal distribution of groundwater pumping; and (iv) spatial distribution of pumping wells. It is important to comprehend how the present-day and future vulnerability of groundwater systems to pumping activities depend on these critical factors and what the risks are of considering sustainable yield as a fixed percentage of mean annual recharge (MAR). A numerical model of the Querença–Silves aquifer in Portugal is used to develop hypothetical scenarios with which these factors are studied. Results demonstrate the aquifer properties, particularly the storage coefficient, have an important role in determining the resilience of an aquifer and therefore to which degree it is dependent on the spatial and temporal distribution of abstraction and recharge, as well as the occurrence of extreme events. Sustainable yields are determined for the developed scenarios based on specific criteria rather than a fraction of MAR. Under simplified current recharge and abstraction conditions, the sustainable yield was determined at approximately 73% of MAR or 76 million m3. When considering a concentration of rainfall in time, as predicted by climate scenarios for the region, sustainable yield could drop to ca 70% of MAR. However, a more even distribution of pumping volumes throughout the year could increase this value. The location of the pumping wells is seen to affect the distribution of hydraulic heads in the aquifer, albeit without significant changes in sustainable yield. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.