Growing demand on groundwater resources and the semi-arid climate in the North China Plain (NCP) highlight the need for improved understanding of connections between regional climate change and groundwater recharge. Hydrologic time series of precipitation and groundwater levels were analyzed in three representative geographical zones throughout the NCP for the period of 1960–2008 using trend analysis and spectral analysis methods. A significant change point around 1975 is followed by a long-term decline trend in precipitation time series, which coincides with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation positive phase. However, the magnitudes of groundwater level variability due to heavy pumping overwhelm the low-frequency signal of groundwater levels. Nonlinear trends that related to long-term climatic variability and anthropogenic activities are removed by using the Singular Spectrum Analysis method. Spectral analyses of the detrended residuals demonstrate significant short-term oscillations at the frequencies of 2–7 years, which have strong correlations with the El Niño–Southern Oscillation modes. This study contributes to improved understanding of dynamic relationship between groundwater and climate variability modes in the NCP and demonstrates the importance of reliable detrending methods for groundwater levels that are affected greatly by pumping. Copyright © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.