Soil and vadose zone profiles are used as an archive of changes in groundwater recharge and water quality following changes in land use in an area of the Loess Plateau of China. A typical rain-fed loess-terrace agriculture region in Hequan, Guyuan, is taken as an example, and multiple tracers (chloride mass balance, stable isotopes, tritium and water chemistry) are used to examine groundwater recharge mechanisms and to evaluate soil water chloride as an archive for recharge rate and water quality. Results show that groundwater recharge beneath natural uncultivated grassland, used as a baseline, is about 94–100 mm year−1 and that the time it takes for annual precipitation to reach water table through the thick unsaturated zone is from decades to hundreds of years (tritium free). This recharge rate is 2–3 orders of magnitude more than in the other semiarid areas with similar annual rainfall but with deep-rooted vegetation and relatively high temperature. Most of the water that eventually becomes recharge originally infiltrated in the summer months. The conversion from native grassland to winter wheat has reduced groundwater recharge by 42–50% (50–55 mm year−1 for recharge), and the conversion from winter wheat to alfalfa resulted in a significant chloride accumulation in the upper soil zone, which terminated deep drainage. The paper also evaluates the time lag between potential recharge and actual recharge to aquifer and between increase in solute concentration in soil moisture and that in the aquifer following land-use change due to the deep unsaturated zone. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.