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Underground passageways mysterious to many NMSU students

Every day thousands of students, faculty, staff and visitors walk the streets of New Mexico State University with no idea that an underground labyrinth of tunnels runs under the campus.


A photo of Ralph Lucero standing in the utility tunnel beneath the Health and Social Services building at NMSU.
Ralph Lucero, supervisor of skilled crafts for the facilities and services department at NMSU, stands inside the utility tunnel beneath the Health and Social Services building. (NMSU photo by Kristina Medley)

"I never knew a system of tunnels beneath our feet existed," said Hannah Rich, a junior physics major at NMSU. "It is a really interesting idea, but I think I would have to actually see it to believe it."

For more than 40 years, maintenance workers at NMSU have used the underground network to allow easy access to valves, pipes and fittings for repairs. Three miles of catacombs are composed of concrete walls and gravel floors. The tunnel system runs beneath various buildings on campus and stretches from Gerald Thomas Hall to the Pan American Center.

Ralph Lucero, supervisor of skilled crafts for the facilities and services department at NMSU, has used the tunnels for 21 years and said the tunnel system is invaluable to his work on campus.

"Maintenance is a lot easier from the tunnels," Lucero said. "Without the tunnel system, it would be very difficult to operate and maintain utilities in all campus buildings."

This unseen network ensures that vital services such as electricity, water, heating and air conditioning are working properly in campus buildings. A majority of these utilities are produced by the university's central utility plant across from Walden Hall on campus. The utility tunnels provide a path for these utilities to be distributed to campus buildings, also protecting pipes from corrosion.

"Having the utilities in the tunnels makes it easier to detect leaks, and we can visibly see what we are dealing with when something needs to be repaired," Lucero said. "Also, with the pipes being inside the tunnels instead of underground, they last a lot longer."

Tieshia Frances, a senior environmental science major and student inspector for the facilities and services environmental health and safety office at NMSU, said she had heard about the tunnel system but was unaware that it covered almost the entire campus. Frances said she thinks the tunnels are useful as long as the conditions are safe and workers are properly trained to use them.

Although the tunnel system is regularly maintained and makes their work easier, maintenance workers still must take precautions when entering the tunnels. Crews are required to wear hard hats, reflective vests and to carry radios while underground.

Lucero said when he entered the tunnels for the first time he was surprised to see how extensive they are and to find the sheer volume of pipes and valves that run through the subterranean corridors. Plumbers, electricians, steamfitters, heating ventilation and air conditioning mechanics or communications workers use the tunnels to perform routine maintenance tasks on a daily basis.

"Having the tunnels makes our job easier, and we can provide better service to everyone on campus," Lucero said.

While the underground system has hatches that open through equipment rooms in various campus buildings and through trap doors on sidewalks, access to the tunnels is limited to those who check out a key from the NMSU Central Utilities Plant. The keys are strictly controlled and are required to be turned in at the end of the workday or sooner if the work is complete.

"Unauthorized people should never try to get inside, as the environment is not safe for people who are untrained and who haven't gone through the appropriate entry process," said Stephen Lopez, deputy chief of the NMSU Police Department. "The Central Utility Plant has made a number of improvements to the tunnel system security over the past decade, so 'exploration' excursions by students or others no longer occur. Anybody inside now has to break through locked doors, gates, or walls, making it quite obvious that they are not 'curious,' but rather 'criminals.'"

Anyone caught entering the tunnel system without proper authorization faces being arrested and charged at a minimum with criminal trespass. Damage done to the tunnels or utilities increases the seriousness of the charges.

Other universities across the country have similar underground utility tunnel systems. NMSU's tunnel system is the best method to ensure that utilities are delivered to the campus community as efficiently and safely as possible, Lucero said.

For more information, contact Facilities and Services at 575-646-3021 or visit www.ofs.nmsu.edu.