Irrigation of agricultural oases is the main water consumer in semi-arid and arid regions of Northwestern China. The accurate estimation of evapotranspiration (ET) on the oases is extremely important for evaluating water use efficiency so as to reasonably allocate water resources, particularly in semi-arid and arid areas. In this study, we integrated the soil moisture information into surface energy balance system (SEBS) for improving irrigated crop water consumption estimation. The new approach fed with the moderate resolution imaging spectro-radiometer images mapped spatiotemporal ET on the oasis in the middle reach of the Heihe river. The daily ET outputs of the new approach were compared with those of the original SEBS using the eddy correlation observations, and the results demonstrate that the modified SEBS remedied the shortcoming of general overestimating ET without regard to soil water stress. Meanwhile, the crop planting structure and leaf area index spatiotemporal distribution in the studied region were derived from the high-resolution Chinese satellite HJ-1/CCD images for helping analyse the pattern of the monthly ET (ETmonthly). The results show that the spatiotemporal variation of ETmonthly is closely related to artificial irrigation and crop growth. Further evaluation of current irrigation water use efficiency was conducted on both irrigation district scale and the whole middle reach of the Heihe river. The results reveal that the average fraction of consumed water on irrigation district scale is 57% in 2012. The current irrigation water system is irrational because only 52% of the total irrigated amount was used to fulfil plant ET requirement and the rest of the irrigation water recharged into groundwater in the oasis in 2012. However, in view of the whole middle reach of the Heihe river, the irrigation water use efficiency could reach to 66% in 2012. But pumping groundwater for reused irrigation wastes mostly energy instead of water. An improved irrigation water allocation system according to actual ET requirement is needed to increase irrigation efficiency per cubic meter water resource in an effort to save both water and energy. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.