Many irrigated agricultural areas seek to prolong the lifetime of their groundwater resources by reducing pumping. However, it is unclear how lagged responses, such as reduced groundwater recharge caused by more efficient irrigation, may impact the long-term effectiveness of conservation initiatives. Here, we use a variably saturated, simplified surrogate groundwater model to: (a) analyze aquifer responses to pumping reductions, (b) quantify time lags between reductions and groundwater level responses, and (c) identify the physical controls on lagged responses. We explore a range of plausible model parameters for an area of the High Plains aquifer (USA) where stakeholder-driven conservation has slowed groundwater depletion. We identify two types of lagged responses that reduce the long-term effectiveness of groundwater conservation, recharge-dominated and lateral-flow-dominated, with vertical hydraulic conductivity (KZ) the major controlling variable. When high KZ allows percolation to reach the aquifer, more efficient irrigation reduces groundwater recharge. By contrast, when low KZ impedes vertical flow, short term changes in recharge are negligible, but pumping reductions alter the lateral flow between the groundwater conservation area and the surrounding regions (lateral-flow-dominated response). For the modeled area, we found that a pumping reduction of 30% resulted in median usable lifetime extensions of 20 or 25 years, depending on the dominant lagged response mechanism (recharge- vs. lateral-flow-dominated). These estimates are far shorter than estimates that do not account for lagged responses. Results indicate that conservation-based pumping reductions can extend aquifer lifetimes, but lagged responses can create a sizable difference between the initially perceived and actual long-term effectiveness.